SAN DIEGO – The first weekend of any given month for a National Guard Soldier usually means reporting to your armory and spending the next 48 hours on duty.
For U.S. Army Sgt. Sean Arroyo, with the California Army National Guard’s 315th Vertical Engineer Company based in Moreno Valley, November’s drill was anything but that.
Instead of donning his OCPs, Arroyo packed his civilian suitcase and jumped on a flight to Washington D.C. for an extraordinary mission: accompany his grandfather, retired Army Spc. Bob Martinez, a Vietnam veteran, and 94 other vets on an Honor Flight from San Diego to the nation’s capital. The Honor Flight San Diego chapter paid for all of the expenses to honor the veterans.
“It’s just an emotional experience,” said Arroyo of being his grandfather’s “Guardian” for the flight. “Honestly, to see all these vets that come back and to hear their stories, they suffered, they went through a lot worse than what we went through and look how strong they are now,” he said.
Arroyo is exactly right. These men were not given the hero’s welcome that accompanies modern-day Soldiers when they return from their deployment overseas. Instead, they were spit on, frowned upon and basically shunned by the mainstream due to the unpopular conflict.
This weekend changed all of that as all the Vietnam Vets – all 95 onboard were a Bronze Star with Valor, Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star and Air Medal recipients – were given a welcome home like no other. Salutes, cheers, banners, crowds cheering, marching bands and current service members shaking their hands wherever they went.
“It really makes me feel good that people now actually acknowledge us for what we did when we did it,” said Martinez.
It was also a time for him to reconnect with other veterans who were never given a chance to talk about what they went through collectively and not to have any fears of adverse reactions from a chapter of American history that many would like to forget.
“To be able to share my story with them, and them sharing with me. I have met a few veterans who had a similar situation to me, other men with aviation roots, and they were in helicopters and fixed wings,” he said.
Martinez was a crew chief on the Caribou cargo/troop-carrying aircraft. He was awarded the Air Medal for flying for more than 100 hours in combat, delivering supplies and moving troops across the battlefield.
“I am proud of what I did, very proud to have served,” said Martinez, “It was a job. I really didn’t think that much about it, just out there to do what we had to do,” he said.
Also, onboard the flight was retired Command Sgt. Major Michael Syzdek, a Purple Heart recipient, served in the California Army National Guard for decades after his active-duty tour to Vietnam.
“To meet other veterans from different military occupational skills and did different things over there, to be able to share this wonderful experience,” he said, “it’s been just amazing.”
Syzdek served in several senior non-commissioned officer positions in the Cal Guard, including the 3-185th Armor Battalion, 4-160th Infantry Battalion, and the 1-18th Cavalry Regiment.
In Vietnam, Syzdek served as an infantry Soldier in the 173rd Airborne Brigade as an M-60 gunner and spent 12 months in combat.
While in D.C., the Vietnam Vets could visit all of the landmarks and monuments, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery, the Air Force and Marine memorials, and the World War II and Korean War Memorials.
“You know, I have never been to D.C., and seeing these monuments is breathtaking. To see the size and scope and to see Arlington and to see how well it is maintained with the rolling green hills and tombstones, the trees changing color. It just makes me 100 percent convinced that the sacrifice everybody in every war has made in the United States has been worth it,” said Syzdek.
The most moving observation, however, was when the veterans visited the landmark representing the conflict they were involved with, the Vietnam War Memorial. Many took the time to etch on a special piece of paper the names of buddies who never returned home.
“It’s the only thing that you get to hold on to,” said the retired Command Sgt. Major. “It was worth it to go through all the misery and sacrifice you went through,” he said.
The veterans and their guardians returned to California the next day as they were greeted by hundreds at the San Diego International Airport, perhaps the biggest and loudest event at the end of this historic journey, all with smiling faces and a warm hug and hand-shake, with one simple message from the heart: welcome home!
“Just to see all these people who are not veterans, thousands of people with their kids, it made me feel real good to see that,” said Syzdek.