La Crosse Vietnam veterans ready for Freedom Honor Flight to Washington D.C.

Four lifelong friends who served together in Vietnam will travel to Washington on Freedom Honor Flight Saturday

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – This weekend the nation’s heroes are honored with a special trip to the U.S. capital. Four life-long friends who served together in Vietnam.
Now they will get to reflect on their service together on their Freedom Honor Flight.

La Crosse natives Bill McArthur, Peter Opitz, Jim Bantle, and George Bell have shared more than 50 years together as friends. They were also chosen together to serve during the Vietnam War.

“We were right out of high school,” McArthur said. “‘65 I graduated and all a sudden here we are all together. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t fun to leave home just before Christmas.”

Opitz had an opportunity to stay home. President Lyndon Johnson at the time made a law allowing men who married after Aug. 26 to avoid the draft.

“I ran down to the jewelry store and bought this girl a ring. “She says, ‘We better get married before midnight otherwise you’re gonna get drafted. I turn around and I said, ‘I don’t love ya. I’m gonna do the draft,’” said Optiz with a laugh.

The rest is history. These gentlemen had only heard about Vietnam from CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.

“He’d be on there and he’d say, ‘this is what Vietnam’s about.’ Down the road, I was chasing girls down 3rd Street,” Opitz said. “Pretty soon I got drafted and I was over in Vietnam. I was like, Walter Cronkite was right. Got a wake-up call real quick.”

An experience that made them appreciate the flag they were fighting for that much more.

“We got it made here,” McArthur said. “People gotta realize what this country’s really all about.”

The Vietnam War came with a cost.

“I lost a brother-in-law over there,” Bantle said. “So, it’s pretty tough.”

Their return home was not met with a parade and a thank you. These men wouldn’t even wear clothing that revealed their service in Vietnam.

“You didn’t want anyone to know you were there,” Bantle said.

It would take several decades for the public to honor their service.

“It took a long time before someone respected ya,” Opitz said.

Bantle said 9/11 was a moment that opened the door for a lot of people.  9/11 left a massive scar on America but galvanized this country and people’s respect for men and women in uniform.

Sept. 11 is a date 20 years ago Saturday, a day for many feels like yesterday. It is on this day these four men will travel to the nation’s capital. Freedom Honor Flight will take them to a memorial. A place of appreciation for what they did for these stars and stripes.

“I think we’re all proud of what we did. We served our country,” Bantle said. “We did our job we’re supposed to do. You’re just a 19-year-old kid.”

COVID-19 delayed the trip to Washington last year, so their excitement boiled over this past year.

“It’s gonna be fun,” McArthur said. “It’s gonna be fun. We road together on a train. We road together on a bus. Now we’re gonna ride together on a plane.”

They experienced their service together. Now they get to reflect on it together.

“Hopefully we can do it for another 20 years,” Bantle said.

Freedom Honor Flight is a La Crosse-based organization founded in April of 2008. News 8 Now will travel with these veterans and capture their experience in Washington.

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