Veteran visits Washington D.C.
By Ben Rodgers
Thomas McDowell recently returned from the experience of a lifetime, the price he paid was four years of service.
McDowell spent Sept. 11 in Washington D.C., as part of the Never Forgotten Honor Flight.
The 71 year-old Navy veteran served in the Atlantic on board the USS Kanakee, a refueling ship, during Vietnam.
“We would usually go along with a carrier group, which amounts to several destroyers, destroyer escorts, sometimes there would be a cruiser along with them and then the aircraft carrier,” McDowell said. “Usually in the Caribbean is where they went to do exercises so we would go down and refuel them periodically.”
His first year in the service, 1964, McDowell spent time at the Great Lakes boot camp and then in Newport, Rhode Island. He was on the seas from 1965 to 1968.
“As far as days you could be refueling anywhere from four or five hours, to 24 hours a day,” he said. “Those were long days but everybody had a different station. You would man pumps or winches or the engine room, that’s where I was, the engine room. We ran pumps and stuff down there, kept our eye on the pressures and the speed.”
McDowell left the Navy with the rank of E-5 2nd Class MM.
“I was married then, I had a daughter already and my wife was pregnant with our second one, so I decided that wasn’t the life,” he said. “I was gone a lot, we were spending a lot of time out at sea because of what we did.”
He started a career in heating and cooling, eventually settling down in Scandinavia.
It was at that time McDowell learned about the Honor Flights.
“We usually have some mini reunions for guys from our ship and there were some guys that were telling me about it,” he said. “So I went online and looked it up in Wisconsin, and they had an application form and I filled out the application.”
He was accepted but had to wait three years to go on the flight.
But the wait was worth it as he got to experience the nation’s capital and the monuments that make it special.
“They have buses waiting for you, and there are people at the airport when we left,” McDowell said. “There were people there cheering us on.”
Once the plane left Wausau and was in the air he received a mail call.
“They gave us a big envelope full of old mail and a box of cookies and there were letters in there from my brother and my sisters, my grandkids, a bunch of school kids, there were even letters in there from the governor and representatives from Wisconsin,” he said.
The letters from his family meant the most.
‘When you start reading some of the letters it made your eyeballs sweat, especially from some of the grandkids that lived with us for a while, they were very touching,” he said.
McDowell visited the National Mall, and there he saw the National World War II Memorial, the Roosevelt Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where he took an etching of his cousin’s name who died in the war.
Then the group headed to Arlington National Cemetery where McDowell witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Arriving home though was his favorite part.
“They had signs for me there, my grandkids and my daughters, my brother and his wife was there and there were so many people there it was hard to look around,” he said.
This homecoming was very different than the one most Vietnam veterans received when they came back from the war.
“I know a lot of Vietnam veterans that came back and people spit on them and everything else,” McDowell said. “I never wore my uniform when I traveled, unless I was flying military stand by and I had to have it on. During the Vietnam era the military was not popular.”
Half a century later he returned to a hero’s welcome. His group was even escorted back to a closing reception by the Souls of Honor, a veterans’ support group that rides motorcycles.
Even though McDowell was awake for 22 hours that day, he still enjoyed the entire experience.
He said veterans who haven’t been on an Honor Flight should make the plans while they can.
“I would highly recommend it,” McDowell said.