Andy Thorry vividly recalls the day he and other members of Company B, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment of the 198th Infantry Brigade returned home from Vietnam. “It was July 1968, and we were loaded on a plane headed for Seattle, Washington,” says the 76-year-old veteran from Vero Beach. “Everybody was happy to be going home.”
During their two years of service, the young men—most barely 21 years old—had endured more atrocities than most people ever experience in a lifetime. They dodged sniper fire from unseen enemies camouflaged in trees, engaged in hand-to-hand combat in muddy foxholes, waded waist-deep through rice paddies filled with leeches, and witnessed the tragic deaths of their close friends and comrades. Earlier that year, on February 8, during the height of the Tet Offensive, Thorry had courageously led a team that saved the lives of seven soldiers while under intense enemy fire in the Battle of Lo Giang.
“When the pilot announced that we would land in five minutes, the plane went dead silent, and then we all started singing “God Bless America,” recalls Thorry. After landing on the tarmac, we literally kissed the ground. But, about 40 yards away, there was a group of anti-war protestors. As we walked by, they spit on us.”
Although Thorry got a warmer welcome when he returned to his family in New Jersey, the sentiments of a nation bitterly divided over U.S. involvement in Vietnam and subsequent conflicts left him with cynical, unresolved feelings for much of his life. “We didn’t choose to go. We were drafted and we went,” he says. “I don’t regret it at all. I believe the military and the discipline it instills is a positive thing for young people.”
Yet, Thorry, like many veterans, didn’t talk much about his Vietnam experience. “I don’t have many memories of my time there,” he admits. “We tried to block it out because of the way we were treated when we came back.”
Those unsettled feelings changed last fall when Thorry and 29 other Vietnam and Korean war veterans from Indian River and Brevard Counties finally got the thanks they deserve and a proper welcome home, courtesy of Space Coast Honor Flight (SCHF).
SCHF is one of 124 hubs, based in 44 states, of the national nonprofit Honor Flight program. Since its inception in 2005, Honor Flight has transported, free of charge, more than 260,000 U.S. veterans to our nation’s capital to visit the war memorials built in their honor.
“This is going to be an emotional day,” said retired Rear Admiral James Hart, SCHF president, to the men and women, ranging in age from 68 to 87, assembled at the Wickham Park Senior Center in Melbourne. It was 2 a.m. and the veterans gathered for what was cheerfully deemed “a final mission on behalf of their country.”
Escorted by guardians and SCHF volunteers, they were about to travel by bus to Orlando International Airport for a Southwest Airlines flight to Washington, D.C., where they would visit the United States Air Force, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Iwo Jima, and Women in Military Service for America Memorials, as well as the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon. They would also attend the changing of the guard and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
SCHF hosts approximately seven Honor Flights from March through November every year with 30 veterans, 30 guardians, 30 wheelchairs, and nine volunteer staff members, including a physician and an EMT to handle any medical issues. For the veterans’ comfort and safety, each is paired with a guardian and offered a wheelchair due to the fair amount of walking required. “This will be our 74th flight,” explained Hart, adding that the local hub has transported 1,919 veterans to the war memorials in Washington since 2010.
“You are going to think about things you may not have thought about in 50 years,” remarked Hart, a Vero Beach resident, who has been active in the organization since 2016. “And you are going to see a different side of America today, a side rarely seen on the nightly news these days.”
“I’d like to get closure and finally see the Vietnam Memorial Wall,” said Thorry, who was accompanied on the Honor Flight by his 43-year-old stepson, Jordan Wolfe, a personal chef from Miami Beach. “Thirteen members of my platoon were killed in action. Maybe it would bring back memories of my time in Vietnam … hopefully some of the good parts, because it wasn’t all bad.”
During a spirited departure ceremony complete with reveille, color guard, and singing of the national anthem, Thorry posed for photos with Congressman Bill Posey. It was a reunion of sorts for both. In 2018, Posey had presented Thorry with a Bronze Star with “V” device for his heroic actions 50 years earlier in the Battle for Lo Giang.
Melbourne city officials, members of Patrick Space Force Base, and a host of volunteers gave the group—outfitted with SCHF shirts, caps, pins, and backpacks—a heroes’ send-off as they boarded two motor coaches bound for Orlando International Airport. Police and members of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association provided escort as the entourage traveled north on I-95.
Arriving before sunrise, the veterans received a warm welcome from airport personnel and travelers, thanking them for their service. When the jet touched down at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, fire trucks doused the plane with a water cannon salute—an honor reserved exclusively for retiring airline captains, firefighters, and veterans.
A town crier, dressed in period costume, announced the group’s arrival at the gate and escorted the travelers through the terminal as onlookers cheered and clapped. While seated comfortably on a bus headed for the war memorials, veterans and guardians enjoyed lunch while watching a video describing how the first unknown soldier for the tomb was selected. At every memorial throughout the day, they were greeted with smiles, handshakes, and “thank yous,” while taking and posing for photos and reminiscing with one another.
At the Vietnam Memorial Wall, Thorry was on a personal mission to locate the names of two of the 15 men from his platoon who died in battle. Rubbing over the names of his fallen friends with paper and pencil provided by a National Park Service volunteer triggered a cascade of emotions and memories. “These two guys I remember quite well,” Thorry said, his eyes welling up with tears. “James Lampley. He was the first one killed. John Hasselbauer. He was only 19. We were all drafted when we were 18.”
“Fifty-five years is a long time,” he added, reflecting on the time passed since his service. “These memories here are good, but you reflect on how this happened. We’re here,” he points, “they’re shooting at us from the trees, and we can’t fire back because we can’t shoot into villages. We walked through villages and handed out chocolates to little kids. The next time we walked through, they’d throw grenades at us. That’s war.”
“It’s nice that this is here. It’s an impression that’s unbelievable,” he remarked, scanning the enormous expanse of black granite, engraved with 58,318 names. “All these people.” It doesn’t even account for all those who died of injuries after returning home, those who subsequently took their own lives, and those succumbing to the effects of Agent Orange, he points out. In 2005, Thorry had a major heart attack triggered by Agent Orange, prompting a quadruple bypass.
“I’m so happy I came, I really am. I got closure, especially seeing these two guys, Hasselbauer and Lampley. They were there from the beginning. We all went over by boat together, on a ship with 4,000 guys.”
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the SCHF group sat front and center for the changing of the guard. Following the moving ceremony, Thorry and U.S. Army veteran Cheri Hawes presented a wreath at the monument. “It felt honorable and totally amazing,” reflected Thorry following the wreath presentation. “I didn’t know the story of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the fact that 400,000 veterans are buried here [at Arlington]. It’s surreal.”
Following the whirlwind tour of the nation’s capital and a late-night return to Florida, the veterans and guardians received a jubilant welcome home at Orlando International Airport. Thorry’s wife, Carol Franchini; daughter; grandson; family members; friends; and coworkers from their travel agency, Travel Expressions—all dressed in patriotic red, white, and blue—greeted the weary travelers with banners and signs. A young woman from the crowd of airport onlookers was handed the gate attendant’s microphone and sang American Idol–worthy renditions of “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.”
Although exhausted after nearly 24 hours of travel, Thorry and his fellow veterans were beaming at their heroes’ welcome home. Their spirits, and perhaps some of their cynicism, were lifted by the outpouring of support and gratitude they received throughout the day.
“I’m happy to be a vet,” remarked Thorry. “Fifty-five years is a long time, but it was well worth the wait to get the Bronze Star and then do this. Was the war done right? Probably not, but it all turned out well. I’m honored to be doing this. I feel blessed. I have a wonderful wife, kids, and grandkids. I’ve had a great life.”
Wolfe, who was glad to share in his stepfather’s experience, said, “I knew a good amount about his Vietnam service, but not some of the details. I’m happy to have been here. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Hart was right. For 24 hours, the veterans and their guardians experienced a different side of America. A side of America that is respectful. A side of America that wears its colors proudly. A side of America that is grateful to those who have risked their lives for our freedom. For the veterans on this Honor Flight, it may have renewed their faith in the America for which they served unconditionally.
As one veteran wrote following the trip, “Henceforth, I will attempt to view my life in the beam of sincerity I experienced yesterday while enveloped in the arms of Honor Flight. Thank you, my brothers and sisters, for this rebirth of my spirit.”