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Iraq, Afghanistan vets will get welcome in Old Market following May Purple Heart flight

January 6, 2019

The men and women who fought and bled in the Middle East wars of the past three decades are going to get a welcome home next May at an Omaha landmark that was once synonymous with veteran homecomings in Nebraska.

The party for Purple Heart and valor award recipients of the Iraq, Afghanistan and Gulf Wars will take place May 24 at the Durham Museum, the former railroad station where thousands of their World War II predecessors returned from war zones.

The event will follow a whirlwind 24 hours that will begin with a tribute dinner, continue with a pre-dawn flight to Washington, D.C., like earlier Honor Flights, and culminate in a trolley ride and parade through the Old Market to the Durham.

“With it being downtown, we think it will really add to the celebration of ‘welcome home,’ ” said Evonne Williams, co-founder with her husband, Bill, of Patriotic Productions, the nonprofit that is putting together the event. “We think people will embrace it — come on downtown and wave the flags and the signs.”

The Williamses said the flight will be open to anyone who was wounded in Operation Desert Storm, the brief 1991 campaign to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, or in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They will also take veterans who earned a Bronze Star with a “V” device for valor or higher-level valor awards such as a Silver Star or service cross. (No Nebraskan has yet earned the highest award, the Medal of Honor, in any of those conflicts.)

They’ll be joined on the flight by the Gold Star children of Nebraska service members who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Since 2008, Patriotic Productions has taken 16 planeloads of Nebraska veterans to Washington on the one-day trips. The last flight, in September, carried female veterans ages 27 to 98.

The Williamses are planning a fundraising dinner on March 2 in Blair featuring music by the ’60s band Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Lewis, the son of the late comedian Jerry Lewis, is a Vietnam-era Army veteran.

This flight has special meaning because the Williamses’ four sons have all served in the military since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Two served in war zones. Ben Williams, an Army captain, deployed three times to Iraq. Tom Williams, a Marine captain, deployed once to Afghanistan. Both came home safely.

“We’ve certainly lived through these wars since the towers fell,” Evonne Williams said.

Retired Marine 1st Sgt. Wade Jensen is one of about a dozen veterans who have already signed up for the Purple Heart flight.

A native of Friend, Nebraska, he grew up idolizing the men in his community who had served in World War II. Their example inspired him to join the Marines.

“There was a World War II vet on every block in my hometown,” said Jensen, who is 47.

Jensen entered boot camp in September 1990. He barely missed serving in the Gulf War early the next year. His first assignment was as a radio operator in a tank unit in Okinawa made up entirely of Gulf War veterans.

Jensen was in Okinawa again when terrorists attacked targets in New York and Washington on 9/11.

Eighteen months later, Jensen was part of the Marine force that invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003. He was wounded on his second deployment, which began in late 2004. He was embedded with a newly trained Iraqi army unit in Mosul.

On Feb. 11, 2005, he and another Marine had been conducting a reconnaissance walk through a residential neighborhood. The occupants of a car jumped out and began firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons.

Jensen was briefly blinded by a flash but continued to fight until the men in the car were repelled. He ducked behind a wall and took a knee, feeling short of breath. The other Marine pulled off Jensen’s flak vest.

“He said, ‘Oh (expletive), Gunny, you took one,’ ” Jensen recalled.

He was taken to an aid station on the main base in Mosul. Doctors there found that the bullet had penetrated his right shoulder and exited through his neck. It barreled through muscle — a “Roto-Rooter through injury,” as Jensen describes it — and missed his spinal cord by just a centimeter.

But not wanting to leave his fellow Marines behind, Jensen refused a medical evacuation to Germany and finished his tour.

“Things became so damn painful after I got back, I couldn’t stand it,” Jensen said. “I just continued to suck it up because I was scared to death of getting put out for medical reasons.”

He couldn’t deploy anymore. But in 2007, he drew an assignment as the enlisted leader of a Marine detachment at Fort Omaha. He served there until he retired in 2011.

Since then, Jensen has earned a business degree at Bellevue University, and still works there at the Military Veteran Services Center. He continues to suffer chronic neck pain and migraines because of his war wounds.

That hasn’t stopped him from leading the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Nor has it stopped him from getting up early to see off veterans on Patriotic Productions’ previous flights to Washington.

“Whenever there’s an opportunity to recognize these veterans, I’ll do it,” he said.

The Williamses have said after their past several flights that they planned no more. But so far, they have consistently found a reason for “just one more.” This time, it’s to honor the wounded and the valorous men and women from the most recent wars, and their families.

And hopefully, to help them heal. Veterans who have flown on previous flights have said they found the trips therapeutic.

“We’d love to err on the side of helping these guys out,” Evonne Williams said. “Maybe it’ll save some lives.”

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