Purple Heart veterans, Gold Star families find closure on honor flight
WASHINGTON — Like most on the trip, 35-year-old Justin Anderson joined the latest Nebraska honor flight to both revisit memories and find some closure.
In 2003, the Bellevue native was shot in the knee during combat operations in Baghdad. On his way to a hospital, he was hit once again by a rocket-propelled grenade.
After being resuscitated three times as his heart began to fail from blood loss, Anderson survived and later received a Purple Heart, which is awarded to those wounded or killed in combat.
Some of his friends, however, did not survive. He didn’t feel lucky, rather a sense of guilt that he came home and they didn’t.
But Friday, Anderson visited their graves in Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery, returning a unit crest that had been blown off his lieutenant’s Kevlar vest while in combat, and thanking them in his own way.
“It’s very nerve-wracking, and there’s so many mixed emotions, thinking about his family and the fact that I’ve never been able to get closure,” he said. “It was important for me to find that.”
Anderson was among 130 Purple Heart recipients and Gold Star family members who rose at 2 a.m. Friday to fly from Omaha to Washington, D.C., just before Memorial Day weekend to visit the city’s war memorials and remember friends and family who had served before and alongside them.
The trip was arranged by Patriotic Productions, an Omaha-based nonprofit started by Bill and Evonne Williams, who seek to honor American veterans and take them to see military memorials.
Thursday, the group was treated to dinner and entertainment at the La Vista Conference Center. Following the meal, Purple Heart recipient Bobby Henline spoke to the group.
Henline was wounded by an improvised explosive device that killed four of his comrades in April 2007. The explosion burned more than 60% of his body and his left arm had to be amputated from the elbow down. But during his recovery, his humor persevered, and Henline has been a standup comedian for 10 years.
“Military guys, we’re all cheap. But I do expect a discount on my cremation,” Henline joked to the audience.
He advised those who have lost someone to find an outlet to channel their emotions and to reach out to other members of the military community for support.
“We’re like houses, we’re always going to have our ups and downs and you have to keep up repairs,” Henline said. “You are who you are because of the experiences you’ve had.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts made an appearance at the dinner along with Reps. Jeff Fortenberry and Don Bacon.
“A country’s greatness is not measured by the wars it has won, but the peace and prosperity that follows those wars,” Ricketts told the veterans. “The worst sin we could do is forget the sacrifice these men and women made.”
When the group arrived at Reagan National Airport, it was greeted with a surprise welcome from volunteers and airport patrons. A small crowd in the terminal applauded the veterans and Gold Star families and reached out to shake their hands as they came through. A group of singers sang John Denver’s “Country Roads,” while a group of veteran bikers held up American flags.
“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” said 28-year-old Josh Echtinaw, who served in Afghanistan until 2012. Mortar shrapnel damaged a large part of a muscle just below a major nerve in his calf, and he had a spinal cord stimulator implanted in 2015 to help with the pain.
“When I came back from deployment, we didn’t get anything like that,” he said. “We just went through the terminal and went on with life. That was that.”
Gold Star families — those who have lost a loved one in military service — were also on the trip. Sons, daughters, wives and husbands from ages 5 to 77 joined the veterans to remember their fallen family members.
David Bruck, an Omaha policeman, became a Gold Star son when he was 10 months old. His father had served in World War II and Korea before being killed in combat in Vietnam.
He expressed reverence while at Arlington National Cemetery, citing Memorial Day as a particularly important time for Americans to remember his father and every fallen soldier’s sacrifice. He said he feels a personal duty to live up to his father’s service.
“We’re a nation that argues and we divide up, but I think it’s places like this and times like this that we really remember how good we have it and how much liberty we have because of all these guys,” Bruck said.
“My father told my mother before he died that he didn’t want me in the military. These guys, they all have their wounds and they would all gladly take the place of the men who fell next to them.”
State Sen. Tom Brewer was also on the trip, himself a veteran with a 36-year military career. He had previously gone on an honor flight with his father when Patriotic Productions organized one for Korean War veterans. He said the thing he remembers most was how his father, a normally stoic man, was overcome with emotion when the veterans returned to a homecoming back in Omaha.
“Those guys all lit up, it was incredible,” Brewer said. “It means the most to them, and especially those Gold Star families. They sacrificed more than most because of circumstances that were thrust upon them.”
After a busy day of shuttling around the nation’s capital and viewing memorials, the veterans arrived back in Omaha 90 minutes late to a parade downtown, where a crowd applauded and thanked them, waving flags to show its appreciation. The group then entered Durham Museum, into the old train station’s main hall just as many World War II and Korean War veterans did when they returned home just in time for Memorial Day.
“The Purple Heart is kinda odd because it feels like I got an accolade for not ducking,” said 32-year-old Army veteran Robert Montag III, who was injured by shrapnel while serving in the Nebraska National Guard in 2007 in Iraq. “But I think, and it’s hard to explain, that having been through it all, that I see the holiday as something more. I think I enjoy it a little bit more and I enjoy those barbecues just a little more, because I know that my buddy and others would’ve been doing the same thing, had they been able to. I think it’s important to remember them.”