Alongside family and friends, Christine Mundy-Ortutay stood in MacArthur Airport, the air saturated with excitement, a handmade sign at her side.
The poster board displayed a photo of a young man in his green helmet and fatigues. Blue confetti circles spelled the words, “Welcome Home Dad.”
Mundy-Ortutay floated in a sea of hundreds waiting to greet the passengers of a LI Honor Flight that sent veterans to Washington, D.C., for free on June 4, after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in the Long Island chapter’s history, the nonprofit flew veterans of the Vietnam War to the nation’s capital, where they could take in the Vietnam Memorial wall in person.
Five decades ago, a nation divided on the Vietnam War showed sparse support for those who fought it. When those who served in Vietnam returned home, they were not given nearly as warm a welcome as the one that awaited them that Saturday evening.
“I’m really hoping that it just shows that everybody supported him then and he has support now,” Mundy-Ortutay said, waiting to greet her father, Paul Mundy. “I think he’s just honored to see everybody with the support. He’s my hero, I love him. He was 18 when he went to Vietnam; he’s 75 now, and I think this is amazing and he’ll love it.”
Family and close friends of the 37 Vietnam veterans and sole World War II veteran on the Honor Flight comprised a small portion of the crowd at MacArthur. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts stood at the ready with boxes of cookies and flags, and groups of families and friends arrived with signs to offer thanks to the veterans they had never met.
“We’re always here to welcome them, appreciate their service,” Peter Hanson said, his wife Sherri Hanson at his side, a “Combat Veteran Vietnam” cap atop his head. “I know what it was like having been over there.”
“It’s great to see the children and the young adults here,” he added. “These guys and gals are going to feel so great coming through here seeing all these people.”
The 38 veterans aboard the Honor Flight headed for Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport from MacArthur at 6:15 a.m. After a ride to the nation’s capital, the veterans visited the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
To date, Honor Flight has sent over 250,000 veterans to Washington, and the Long Island chapter has flown over 1,800. Even after so many trips, Honor Flight president and fellow veteran Bill Jones said the emotional weight remains heavy.
“You’re just not ready for it,” he said. “You think, Well you’ve seen it, you’ve watched them experience the appreciation that they get when they arrive at Baltimore or at the memorials, but it just impacts you in a way all over again that makes you feel proud to be a part of this organization.”
On the flight home, Honor Flight surprised the veterans with a mail call, a lifeline that supported them through their service and kept them connected with civilian life. Some letters were simply addressed “Dear Veteran,” from school children or other groups, while others came from family and friends.
“These are letters that, for the most part, no family member would probably write, ever, to their veteran, but this gives them the opportunity to do that,” Jones said. “The veteran is just overwhelmed to read the appreciation and gratitude that they have. It opens up a whole new world between the veteran and that family member, so it’s mighty cool.”
When they landed in MacArthur Airport at 8:45 p.m. that Saturday evening, the veterans received their Girl Scout cookies, shook hands, saluted, and soaked in the thunderous cheers and applause that rivaled the volume of the Eastern Long Island Police Pipes and Drums Band.
The procession of servicemembers, surprised by the fleet of support, displayed a breadth of emotion. Smiles were plentiful and the tears were genuine when family members embraced.
Such was the case when Paul Mundy waded through the crowd to his family and friends awaiting him.
“It started as soon as we got here this morning to leave,” Mundy said. “They were clapping, they were clapping everywhere I went—the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, going for dinner, every place. Then I get off, and this! My best friend for 70 years, cousins, my wife, my daughters, everything.”
“It’s amazing,” he continued, himself tearing up as his children wept and grandchildren hugged his leg. “It’s amazing. It really is touching; we really appreciate it. I guess I never thought of the appreciation maybe we should have got.”
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