‘Freedom is not free’: 25th Freedom Honor Flight brings appreciation to La Crosse Vietnam War veterans

Freedom Honor Flight leaves lasting impact on La Crosse military veterans; war memorials a reminder 'freedom isn't free'

WASHINGTON D.C. (WKBT) – Four La Crosse Vietnam War veterans remember their return home from war for what they didn’t receive; a thank you for their service. A special trip on Freedom Honor Flight to Washington D.C. showed them how much times changed.

Before the sun Rose on Saturday, La Crosse came together for a moment built on appreciation for service.

“I haven’t been up this early with these guys since we went to basic (training),” said Bill McArthur, a Vietnam War veteran.

News 8 Now met McArthur, George Bell, Jim Bantle, and Peter Opitz 48 hours before their special journey to the nation’s capital. Seventy-three of their fellow Vietnam War Veterans boarded a plane, with their family and friends out in full force, as they took off on a memorable flight.

A parade waited for them at Reagan Airport in Washington D.C. The group stopped at the Lincoln Memorial before they witnessed a wall with the names of their friends who never made it home.

Peter Opitz found his best friend William at the Vietnam War Memorial. Painful memories ran down his face.

“I was with him when he got killed,” Opitz said. “September 22nd, 1967.

“My birthday was June 2nd and he was August 2nd, he was 19 years old when he got killed.”

It’s as if the war happened yesterday.

“We got ambushed,” Opitz said. “We never got to him until about three hours later. We couldn’t get him.”

Opitz made it home, but he said he wasn’t welcomed home.

“In ‘67 we came home, we didn’t get that kind of a deal. We got spit on, called you baby killers,” he said. “You didn’t want to have a uniform on. You didn’t want nobody to know that you were over there.”

The line of people at the airport reminded him how much things changed over the years.

“That was shocking, the welcome,” Opitz said.

Brandle found a name. For him, this wall keep’s their spirits alive.

“It’s sad, but it’s cool,” Brandle said. “Hopefully he’ll never be forgotten.”

Freedom Honor Flight is also about rekindling old relationships for those who say they were fortunate to make it home in 1968.

“We both got out, lucky,” said Tom Smith, a Vietnam War veteran.

Smith and Philip Moran hadn’t seen each other in 54 years.

“We’ve been emailing for the last couple years,” Smith said. “I found him on the internet. I just happened to send him a message and he remembered me.”

Smith also found names on this wall.

“I found five on the wall,” he said.

Not to mention the day this trip fell on.

“I wasn’t in the towers,” Moran said. “I was about four blocks away.”

America reflected on some of the darkest hours in the nation’s history on Saturday. Philip worked on Wall Street when the Twin Towers fell to the ground 20 years ago.

“It is strange and it brings it home,” Moran said.

Freedom Honor Flight visited Arlington National Cemetery. This brought these heroes together for a moment of silence. Some of the U.S. military’s finest soldiers stand guard over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

This tradition is a testament to the respect of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The consensus from this group of men is photos don’t do justice to the nation’s capital. There’s something about being there that made the wait worth it.”

“Oh yeah, it really is,” Optiz said.

These memorials can teach every person who lives here about the irony of freedom.

“Freedom is not free,” Brandle said.

The flight home gave these brave men a final surprise. Mail and letters of an ultimate thank you were given from the people they love the most. Optiz’s sister hit it out of the park with photos of him as a child and the man he’d become. This gift created a smile that said it all.

Freedom Honor Flight will make its 26th trip on Oct. 9. The veterans returned with their family and friends welcoming them home.

Freedom Honor Flight

The Stoddard American Legion presented this check for $7,500 to help support future flights.

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