Ken Hovland finally got to make a trip to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. in early October, if only in spirit.
“Ken and I got the call to go just days apart,” Vietnam Veteran William Gomez said about phone calls received four months ago telling the veterans they were chosen to take the same Honor Flight back to D.C. “He was so happy. He wanted to go. He died Sept. 29 and the trip was made Oct. 3-4.”
Gomez said when his friend became too ill to travel and had to cancel his reservation for the flight, Gomez told him he would “take him there” with him.
“That’s when I made the sign for him, ‘You are here in spirit,’” said Gomez. “At the time, I didn’t know if he would still be with us. But I took him to the wall. We found Marines on the flight over who said they were Marines like Kenny was and they held the sign and we lit a candle for eternity for him.”
Gomez said after the memorial ceremony was done for Hovland, “I did mine. I put my hand on the wall. Then I thanked all the veterans and the ones who are serving today to protect our country.”
“This is a good time for the veterans to start healing and realize they are appreicated,” said Annie Wilkison, a volunteer who had already made three trips accompanying veterans on the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. “But with William, it was all about Ken, and he honored Ken first before himself. I have never seen that before.”
“I think it was a closure for me, but this one was done as an honor for Ken,” said Gomez, who will present the sign to Hovland’s widow, Julie, at his memorial this Saturday (Oct. 15).
The memorial scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Tonasket Cemetary will include full military honors performed by the Color Guard, followed by a reception at the Tonasket Eagles beginning at 2 p.m.
Gomez said when the Honor Flight landed in Washington, D.C., firefighters with trucks parked on each side of the plane were there to honor the veterans.
“The first emotion I got, the first time I shed tears, was when there were firetrucks, one on each side of the plane, shooting water over the top of the plane. That was the first mind blower,” said Gomez. “It’s been 45 years for some of us, 50 for some and even longer for others for the ‘Welcome Home.’ When I landed at the San Francisco International Airport from Vietnam, I got spit on. And the first five years at home was the same, people calling you names and you getting spit on.”
Gomez was in Vietnam during 1967-1968.
“The most fun was having a police escort,” Gomez said about the trip. The police met the veterans at the Hyatt Hotel in the morning and provided a full day of police escorts including cars and bikes.
“The police escorted us from memorial to memorial so we didn’t have to wait in traffic,” said Gomez. “It was awesome, you hear the sirens and people are looking to see what’s going on. Cars would pull over and then start to pull back into traffic and the cop on the bike was kicking at the cars to let our bus go by.”
“We were waving at the cars as we went by, like dignitaries,” said Wilkison.
“We felt like congressmen,” added Gomez.
Gomez said another amazing feeling was experienced on the walk to the wall.
“The people I met before I got to the wall, I met Philipinos and some were saying, ‘Thank you for fighting for your country, and thank you for helping our country,” said Gomez. “Meeting all these different people, Philipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese and they were just greeting us and hugging us. That tore me up, just the vibration I could feel as I was walking.”
Wilkison said Gomez was confronted by reporters from television stations back east.
“They saw what he did for Ken, and they put him in front of their big cameras and started interviewing him,” said Wilkison.
If the day in D.C was full of surprises, so was the trip home. The Honor Flight has ‘Mail Call,’ in which veterans are surprised on the return trip home with letters from loved ones delivered to them on the plane. Gomez had a letter from his kids in the mail bag.
“That letter, we both sat there and cried,” said Gomez. “I told Annie, ‘Okay, no more surprises.’”
When the plane landed in Spokane and Gomez was walking through the terminal, he heard a familiar voice shout out, “Hey, aren’t you going to shake my hand?”
Gomez said he turned around to shake what he thought was going to be a stranger’s hand and it was his daughter.
Angel Roberts and her daughter, Michelle Roberts, had driven over from Belfair near Bremerton to greet Gomez’s return flight. They were at the Spokane Airport holding a sign saying, ‘We love you Grandpa Gomez.’
“Oh yeah, I lost it. I lost it,” said Gomez.
“I had told him ‘no more surprises,’ but I had just gotten a text from Angel saying they were driving over,” said Wilkison. “They turned around and went right back to Seattle because the granddaughter had to work the next morning. They drove all that way over just to greet him.
“It’s probably an eight hour trip each way,” said Gomez. “My daughter made the trip, despite still recuperating from a serious car accident last December.” Gomez said another son that lives in the Tonasket area, Mark Gomez, knew about the surprise but kept it a secret.
Wilkison said on the flight home from D.C. she had suggested to Gomez, “Well maybe now you can begin to heal,” but his response had been, “I don’t think there is anything that can ever heal me.”
After seeing his family at the airport, Gomez turned to Wilkison and said, “You know, maybe you are right. Maybe now I can begin to heal.”
The Honor Flight is free for veterans.