By Tony Bryson
Special to The North Cass Herald
On Oct. 11 of this year, U.S. Army Sergeant Jackson “Jack” Colaw finally received a proper welcome home for his service during the Vietnam War.
It was only 54 years late.
Jack, a resident of Belton for over half a century, was one of those chosen to partake in special program for veterans, one where they travel to Washington, D.C. to visit and explore various military monuments. The group which organizes these events, Heartland Honor Flight, meticulously plans everything for the participants, so that they are able to fully enjoy the experience.
Such journeys always start well before they actually begin, and such was the case for Jack. Woody Dick and his wife, Leslie, nominated him for the experience, and due to the extensive wait list HHF has, it took follow-up calls to get him on the flight as a last-minute addition. HHF also requires that each veteran be accompanied by a guardian during the trips, to provide comfort and support, so Woody – who has known Jack for over a decade and a half – served as such.
The day began with waking before 3 a.m., and then traveling to the airport for the departure of their charter flight, which took off a little before 5 a.m. Due to pre-screening measures, Jack was allowed to skip the usually-exhaustive TSA processes and stroll through like a VIP, which is one of the details FFH attends to in advance to assure the veterans feel special.
After landing at Reagan International Airport, four busses were ready to transport the attendees to their various locations. The American Legion’s “Patriot Guard Riders,” an all-volunteer group which attends to protecting and honoring veterans, served as escorts upon their arrival.
The first leg of the journey was a brief stop at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, then a trip to the National Mall to see the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and Constitution Gardens. It was at the latter where the veterans were encouraged to tell stories about friends they had lost in combat; when discussing this Jack paused for a moment, obviously choked up, saying, “It was tough.”
Of course there was also a stop to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also known as “The Wall.” In another example of HHF’s attention to detail, pre-trip they requested the names of those each veteran wanted to find, so that they could provide a general location in advance. This made it much easier for those on the tour to visit the names that mattered; Jack and Woody visited three names, each of whom were from Belton.
The final stop on the first leg was a trip to Arlington National Cemetery, which Jack thought was, “amazing,” Jack said. They were able to observe the solemn changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and considered the entire park to be “most impressive.”
They returned to their busses after Arlington for the second and final leg, where the Patriot Guard Riders were replaced by thirteen Arlington County Sheriff Department Motorcycle Deputies as escorts. Continuing the VIP treatment, they traveled non-stop to the rest of their destinations, shutting down traffic when necessary. That, along with taking care of each veteran’s every want and need regarding food, beverages, and comfort, impressed Woody and made Jack feel incredibly appreciated for his service.
This final leg included visits to the Marine Corps War Memorial, the U.S. Air Force Memorial, and ended at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. The latter really impressed both men, as the layout – once educated on what it represents – is both poignant and beautiful.
After that, they headed back toward the airport to return home, and once on the plane Jack and Woody reflected on the emotional impact of the day, and how impressively HHF assured the entire itinerary went off like clockwork.
But they were not done yet.
During the flight a “Mail Call” was issued. For veterans who had served in Vietnam, the mail call was a highlight of the day, the time when they received correspondence from loved ones back home. In another masterful stroke, HHF encouraged family and friends to write letters in advance, expressing appreciation and thanking them for their service; kept secret from the veterans until the moment of the call, these letters were presented in mid-flight.
While discussing this Jack was still very emotional, even a month later; “(He) has a hard time talking about it,” Woody said. The letters Jack received included expressions of love and gratitude from family and friends, though the ones from his daughters were especially touching. “I’ve never seen Jack like that before,” Woody said, “it meant an awful lot.”
The event ended around 10 p.m., to the roar of a crowd. Waiting for them was a large group of people, “somewhere near a thousand,” Jack estimated, and they cheered for the veterans as they departed the plane. The individuals there, ranging from school-age children to men of Jack’s own age, were genuine in their support, and provided the perfect ending to an amazing day.
And finally, 54 years later, Sergeant Jackson “Jack” Colaw was truly welcomed home.