BANDON — When Howard Hoffer returned from serving in Vietnam, he, like many other veterans, received a less-than-enthusiastic welcome.
That all changed last month, more than 50 years later, when Hoffer went on an Honor Flight from Sept. 19-22 to Washington, D.C.
Hoffer went on the flight with his wife Nancy as his guardian and while Nancy had been to the nation's capitol previously, Hoffer had not.
At a busy pace, and with about one-third of the group in wheelchairs, those on the Honor Flight were taken to see memorials of World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, as well as memorials for each branch of military service, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and a memorial for women who have served. They also visited Arlington National Cemetery, where they got to see the changing of the guard ceremony, the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, among other sites.
"It was the first time for me seeing these (monuments) and they were most impressive," Hoffer said.
He was amazed at how the group of veterans were treated on the trip, which included 25 guardians and six chaperones, one a registered nurse. The group was split evenly between WWII, Korean and Vietnam veterans. Honor Flight just started taking Vietnam veterans this year.
Everywhere the group went, people acknowledged them, especially at airports. In Seattle as they were transferring flights, a local Honor Guard stood in the rain at attention. One of them gave Hoffer a Congressional Medal coin that he proudly shows people.
"There was quite an entourage at airports and at hotels," Hoffer said. "They just made you feel like you were a king."
"There was a feeling of camaraderie amongst the veterans and guardians, he added. "After the first day, it felt like you'd known everyone for 100 years."
The chaperones were attentive to the needs of each veteran and Hoffer said they were so organized that everything went smoothly, from airports to hotel to meals to being escorted by police as they drove to the National Mall, making them feel like dignitaries. Hoffer said he was especially grateful for Gail Yakopatz, treasurer of Honor Flight of Oregon, who also accompanied the group.
Hoffer enjoyed seeing all the memorials, but the Korean and Vietnam memorials brought tears to his eyes.
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"I lived those," he said.
Hoffer served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam for 18 month on two campaigns. He was a crew member on a shallow-draft ship where they patrolled the coastline, looking for sampans and junks carrying contraband. If found, the boat and crew were taken to an island on the southern tip of Vietnam and held as prisoners. Hoffer also worked on a smaller boat on a river using a grappling hook every morning and evening to break wires that were set as explosive triggers for larger ships.
Hoffer was born and raised in Santa Monica, Calif., but had grandparents who lived in Bandon, so visited each summer. He attended Humboldt State College, then did graduate work at Chico State. He took a job as a teacher at Marshfield High School and worked for the Coos Bay School District for 30 years. He also had cranberry bogs in Bandon. He has one daughter who has three children, and one son who has four children.
The Honor Flight was a memorable one for Hoffer and his wife.
"It was really a moving experience," Nancy said. "There were many buses full of Honor Flight veterans from different states, many, many in wheelchairs."
All the veterans received a copy of what U.S. Rep. Greg Walden read in Congress with the names of all the veterans on that trip. They also received a flag flown over the Capitol, a lined windbreaker, two T-shirts and a cap with their appropriate conflict printed on it.
The veterans' expenses are completely paid by donations and guardians pay $1,100 for their trip, which includes flights, hotels and meals.
Hoffer encourages anyone who's eligible to apply to go on the trip, and for people to donate to Honor Flight of Oregon.
"It was a class act all the way," he said.
For more information about Oregon Honor Flight visit www.honorflightoforegon.org