DANVILLE — Dennis Van Duyn can still hear the bagpipes, see the swirl of patriotic colors and feel the hands reaching for his.
When he heard Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” he broke down in tears.
The recent Land of Lincoln Honor Flight triggered many emotions in the Vietnam War veteran and overwhelmed his senses. Still, it was a wonderful trip, he said, and he’d take it again if he could.
“The trip was excellent,” he said. “Everyone treated us well. It was just amazing.”
Van Duyn was one of 83 veterans on the April flight from Springfield to Washington, D.C. On board were four World War II, 28 Korean War and 51 Vietnam War era veterans — all excited to visit and reflect with their comrades at their national memorials.
Especially touching were the people who cheered the veterans upon arrival at the Ronald Reagan National Airport, the students and strangers who flocked around them at the sites, and the crowd that welcomed them back at the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport.
The receptions were amazing to Van Duyn, who returned to the United States only to be called a “baby killer” and to see “hippies” throwing tomatoes and rotten eggs. When he was in Vietnam, nobody told the soldiers that people back home were protesting the war.
Van Duyn, 69, still struggles with the aftereffects of the war — the memory of watching a friend die in his arms and exposure to Agent Orange, which afflicts him to this day.
Van Duyn enlisted in the Army in February 1968 and served until February 1970. He was stationed in Vietnam from July 23, 1968, to July 20, 1969.
On his first day in the field, he was in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He and others jumped, landing in a rice paddy about 20-25 feet below. He earned the Combat Infantry Badge for that action.
He earned the Bronze Star for valorous actions on June 3, 1969, when his company encountered a well-entrenched enemy force, and the forward platoon was pinned down in an exposed area. Van Duyn moved across open terrain and reached a rice paddy dike, where he placed suppressive fire on an enemy bunker, allowing the trapped platoon to withdraw. After the casualties had been evacuated, Van Duyn helped rout the insurgents and capture a valuable enemy weapon.
Another time, Van Duyn saw his friend, Sgt. Terry Harding, step on a landmine, and die in his arms on Jan. 21, 1969. Harding is buried in Tuscola.
He also was awarded the Purple Heart.
In D.C., he didn’t visit the Vietnam Wall, as he had been there before and just couldn’t do it this time. Instead, his wife’s nephew, Errol Eller of Springfield, visited the wall and got a photo of Harding’s name.
Eller was Van Duyn’s guardian during the trip; he is a sergeant first class with the Army National Guard.
Eller said, “It was an honor to be able to go out there with him and try to be there for him if he wanted to open up and talk.”
Eller was impressed with how the flight represented a variety of people who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, and how they visited a variety of monuments honoring those men and women. Eller served in Germany in 2002 and in Iraq from 2005-06.
Van Duyn said he was touched by the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Other sites visited were the World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials, Lincoln Memorial, the National Air & Space Museum, the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial and the U.S. Air Force Memorial.
On the way back, there was “mail call,” when the veterans were given packets of letters and cards from relatives, students and even strangers.
“This is something I’ll keep the rest of my life,” Van Duyn said.
Overall, the receptions at the airports made the biggest impression.
His wife, Mary, was among the hundreds who greeted the returning veterans.
“I’ve never seen anything so amazing,” she said. There were pageant queens, motorcyclists, and patriotic songs. A 12-year-old boy made a point of shaking every veteran’s hand.
Eller said of that standing-room only reception, “That was incredibly impressive. (The airport) was as packed as it could be.” Veterans and guardians from past Honor Flight trips showed up in special T-shirts, as well.
Van Duyn was the first one off the plane, and can still hear the bagpipes. When he saw Mary, he broke down, he said.
Van Duyn attended Danville High School, but joined the Army before he graduated. A few years ago, he received an honor diploma from the school.
While Van Duyn was in Vietnam, he was exposed to Agent Orange, which is blamed for his battles with cancer since 1971. The cancer was in his face, and in 1984, he underwent radical surgery, where his jaw, muscles and other parts of the right side of his face were removed. In 2000, he underwent reconstruction of his face.
He has been battling cancer throughout the years, and has had 32 surgeries. Currently, he’s undergoing a second round of chemotherapy once a week for 12 weeks. Mary also has had thyroid and colon cancer, but is in remission.
Van Duyn worked with the Union Pacific Railroad for 13 years in Villa Grove, but lost his job due to his illness. He then worked at Model Star for 18 years.
Mary worked at General Electric, got her associate’s degree, and then worked 20 years in the office at what is now OSF HealthCare.
They have a son, James, in Terre Haute, Ind., and a daughter, Kerri, in Las Cruces, N.M.; eight grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; and one step-great-granddaughter.
ABOUT HONOR FLIGHT
Honor Flight is free to veterans, but guardians undergo training and pay a fee.
Veteran applications continue to be accepted with flight priority given in the following order: World War II (enlisted by Dec. 31, 1946), then Korean War Era (Jan. 1, 1947 to Dec. 31, 1957), followed by the Vietnam War Era (Jan. 1, 1958, to May 7, 1975). Any certified terminally ill veteran should contact Land of Lincoln directly.
Because every veteran flies with a guardian escort, applications for future guardians also are being accepted. This may be any able-bodied person, 18-70 years old, except for veterans who have already been honored with a flight or a spouse/significant other of a veteran on a flight.
The guardian fee includes Land of Lincoln training, cap and T-shirt, round-trip flight, bus tour during the day, meals and snacks, refreshments and the privilege of spending the day honoring the veterans.
Land of Lincoln is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization that receives no government funding. It honors the veteran with a trip to D.C. due to generous donations, sponsorships, fundraising events, merchandise sales and supporting efforts of the many local businesses, individuals and organizations within its service area.
Since its inception in 2009, Land of Lincoln Honor Flight has served 4,191 veterans on 54 flights.
• Honor Flight applications are available at the American Legion Post 210 in Danville or by calling Roy Huxhold at 497-3606.
• People may visit the website to make a donation, consider holding a fundraiser, book a board member to speak or obtain more information on the Honor Flight mission. There’s also a Facebook page.