About 100 Vietnam-era veterans were cheered, lauded and honored by hundreds of local friends, family and community supporters at a welcome home bash held Wednesday evening at North High School's football stadium.
The night was chilly as the crowd waited for the veterans to arrive. High school cheerleaders and football players from several schools handed out flags as family members, church friends and many who simply support local veterans carried signs in the stands, eager to celebrate the return of the local vets following a two-day whirlwind tour of the memorials in the nation’s capital.
It was Honor Flight Kern County’s 43rd flight.
Reached by phone a few minutes before the return flight home Wednesday, U.S. Army veteran Stephen Lynton said he really enjoyed the trip. He was particularly pleased by the response from "civilians" he encountered along the way, remarking on how friendly and supportive they were.
Kern County resident Arlene Aninion was on the flight as well, acting in the role of volunteer "guardian" for Lynton and U.S. Navy veteran Jerry Mason.
The trip was exhausting yet unforgettable, Aninion said.
"This is my third flight, and I already cannot wait for my fourth."
Aninion had another special duty on the flight.
In a sense, she acted as guardian for a third man this week, U.S. Army veteran Waymon Lloyd Prather, who died last year before he could take part in an Honor Flight. Prather served in Vietnam and among the recognition he received was a commendation medal for rescuing two young girls trapped under a live electrical wire during a storm.
In remembrance of Prather, Aninion carried the American flag that had draped his casket at his funeral. The flag would be returned to Prather’s family at the homecoming Wednesday evening.
"Such an honor," she said.
Honor Flight, an all-volunteer organization, is dedicated to providing all-expense-paid trips to the nation's capital for as many military veterans as possible, all paid for through fundraisers and donations.
The vets and their guardians visit the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and several other national memorials in the nation's capital.
As the crowd waited for the veterans to arrive, Marian Meighan was watching for one man in particular, her husband, Skyler, who served as a deep-sea diver in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. He and a Navy buddy, Bill Stovall, were on the Honor Flight together.
“It’s amazing,” Meighan said of the hundreds of families, friends and supporters who turned out to welcome the Honor Flight veterans home.
“There’s a reason they call it Honor Flight,” she said.
Mark Balch, the principal of North High, was there Wednesday night. He saw it as a teachable moment.
“It’s important for young people to be here to see the people who fought and died for their freedom,” Balch said.
“We hope they remember this night for the rest of their lives.”
As the buses finally arrived, escorted by a contingent of motorcyclists, a cheer went up from the crowd, which had been waiting patiently.
Leading the caravan were two CHP motor officers, and patriot riders. Finally, five big yellow school buses filled with military veterans pulled into the stadium.
“USA! USA! USA!" The chant rang out from the crowd.
Human tunnels, formed by the cheerleaders, made a path for the vets. They were tired, but clearly elated by the welcome.
Jim Pentico, 75, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, talked about the emotions that spilled out upon visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall. And the packets of letters he received on the flight home from family members, neighbors and even his Sunday school class. When he spoke about it, he had to choke back tears.
"It was the most exciting thing I've ever done in my life," he said of the trip. "Any veteran who gets a chance to do this — they should do it."
Earlier in the day, another veteran soldier who was unable to join his veteran brothers on the flight was honored near his home.
William Tyson Davis had badly wanted to go on the flight, but could not obtain clearance from his doctor. But on Wednesday, hundreds of supporters honored the Vietnam-era Army veteran with a patriotic parade and presentation at his son's home in northwest Bakersfield.
"We’re so sad that you couldn’t come on this Honor Flight," Lili Marsh, the founder of the Kern County chapter, said to Davis on Wednesday.
"Instead," she said, "we decided to bring Honor Flight to you."