WASHINGTON D.C. — They'd rode on a bus for hours Friday, some not knowing what to expect. John Morabito and Michael Trapani almost decided not to go on the veterans' trip to Washington D.C. from Auburn.
They were not alone in their hesitation.
But then they saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — the first stop on Saturday's schedule for Operation Enduring Gratitude. The black wall covered in the names of those missing in action or fallen sloped upward and then fell down again into the earth, a metaphor, said Karima Hurt with the National Park Service, for the feelings around the war.
Vietnam War veterans walked along that path of remembrance, pointing at names and leaving notes, which Hurt said the service collects and hopes to one day display in its own museum. Vietnam War veterans had not been invited to the first Operation Enduring Gratitude trip in 2012. Sponsored by the Knights of Columbus Council 207, the event gives precedence to World War II and Korean War veterans to make sure they see the memorials and monuments made in memory of their fallen comrades and in honor of their own service.
David Reyer, of Throop, served in the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. He'd brought his father, a World War II veteran, on the trip in 2012. His father passed away three years later. Now, Reyer is on the trip not as a guest but as an honored veteran.
"I'm glad I came down with him," Reyer said. "Now I'm down here, and I kind of wish he was here with me. I do."
With just six World War II veterans on the trip and several Korean War veterans, many representing the Vietnam War era, including Reyer, saw their memorial for the first time on Saturday. It's tough for them to talk about. The war had much criticism and Jim Orman, treasurer of Cayuga County and Vietnam War veteran from Aurora, said the reception when he came home was chillier than the 18-degree temperatures outside.
Bill Cowmey, of Auburn, who served as a radio operator in Vietnam, said he was glad for the trip "to see all these names here and to just re-bond with people." Choked up, he would not say more.
Jack Kulis, of Auburn, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1968 to 1972 in Peshawar, West Pakistan. While the experience was eye-opening — he said working in a third world country was like stepping back in time — he made friendships and bonds like no other. Good friends with Reyer and U.S. Army veteran Jerry Kelly, of Auburn, the servicemen said the Operation Enduring Gratitude trip has given them a chance to enjoy themselves with those who can understand what they've been through.
"It's very humbling," Kelly said. "Nobody has really cared since 1971 until these people."
Though decades apart, that same quietness about the past resides with World War II veteran Robert Strohm, of Auburn. All the Operation Enduring Gratitude veterans revere Strohm, who served in four invasions over four years in the U.S. Navy. He'd just turned 19 when he joined the service, but he didn't want to talk about it any more than that. He was overwhelmed by the trip, though. It was his first time to the nation's capital.
"Oh man, I can't believe the way they treated me," he said. "I've never been treated so good in my life.
"I'll never forget it," he added. "Believe me."
Besides the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, travel goers saw the stoic face of President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, the ghostly men trekking through the greenery of the Korean War Veterans Memorial and what perhaps impressed them most of all — the National World War II Memorial. A downpour could not keep the veterans from gazing at the site, taking portraits and tours under umbrellas and watching members of the United States Color Guard representing all branches present arms.
Former U.S. Sen. Robert "Bob" Dole, who is also a World War II veteran, sat near the memorial to greet not only Cayuga County veterans, but many others from across the country who had flown down for the day on the Honor Flight, another organization that brings veterans to the capital. He posed for photos and shook many hands, taking time to talk to each individual in a long line of admirers.
Though a Korean War veteran, Morabito said the National World War II Memorial impressed him the most — that and the Lincoln Memorial. Seeing Lincoln, he said, is what made him decide to come on the trip.
"I wasn't really going to come, but I finally decided I was going to come, and I'm glad I did," he said.
Veterans continued on their tour, viewing the United States Navy Memorial and the United States Air Force Memorial. At the navy memorial, Morabito got to talking about his service. He met Admiral William "Bull" Halsey when he was in boot camp, and the famous World War II admiral attended Morabito's commencement ceremony, too.
"It was pretty cool," Morabito said about his service. "We had some good times."
Though many would not discuss the difficult times, most of the veterans valued their experiences. They grew up. They made bonds that span strangers also wearing wings, color bars, embroidered hats with labels that mean so much.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything," Reyer said.