Summit County Vietnam veteran reflects on Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C.
FRISCO — A Summit County resident was treated to the experience of the lifetime earlier this month as part of the High Plains Honor Flight, receiving free trip to Washington, D.C., in honor of his service during the Vietnam War.
“It was such an eye opening experience,” said Dave Patterson, who served in Vietnam for about a year in 1970. “And we received such a nice welcome. It was awakening for a lot of us veterans, especially Vietnam vets, that never got recognized for our service.”
Patterson was born in Fairplay and said he grew up nearby in Loveland. He moved to Breckenridge about 47 years ago hoping to ski for a year but, like many others, fell for the area and decided to stick around.
Before he made his move to Summit, Patterson said he felt a draw to join his countrymen fighting overseas in Southeast Asia.
“I was going to school in Gunnison at Western State College, and a buddy of mine there got killed in Vietnam,” Patterson said. “And it was like, ‘Let’s go have a cup of coffee.’ Everybody just ignored it. It kept bugging me that somebody would die, and that nobody really cared.”
Patterson enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969 and joined the 101st Airborne Division — the “Screaming Eagles” — as part of a reinforcement group following the division’s bloody 10-day battle at Hamburger Hill in May 1969. Patterson spent about a year in Vietnam, lugging an M60 machine gun through densely forested mountain ridges in the A Sâu Valley along the eastern border of Laos.
“At first, I was very much pro-America helping out over there,” Patterson said. “But by the second half of the year, I just wanted to stay alive so I could go home. … It wasn’t really about killing the enemy. It was that somebody was trying to kill you. The objective wasn’t fighting for God or country. It was just to stay alive.”
While Patterson returned home from the conflict alive and physically unharmed, he said he was welcomed back with jeers and never had the opportunity to embrace his service experience in a positive way.
“Most of us that came back didn’t want to admit we were veterans,” said Patterson, noting the anti-war sentiment that began to sweep its way across the country in the mid 1960s. “I was spit on at the airport and called a baby killer. A lot of us didn’t talk about it because it just wasn’t popular to be a veteran. They weren’t giving out any ‘attaboys.’”
But earlier this month, Patterson’s service was recognized in a way it never had been. On Sept. 15, a group of about 150 veterans who had served in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam and even more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were taken on a free trip to Washington, D.C.
The program, called the High Plains Honor Flight, is part of a greater nationwide Honor Flight Network dedicated to allowing veterans from across the country to visit the capital and see the memorials built to the wars they served in. The tours are funded through donations, and the organization offers tours from 140 regional hubs, including three in Colorado.
According to Patterson, the event is quite a spectacle. Patterson said the group was picked up in four busses from the Loveland area and taken to Denver for the flight. The veterans received star treatment on the way down.
“There were three helicopters, four police cars and probably over 100 motorcycles — half in front of us and half in back,” Patterson said. “Everywhere we went, we had an escort. There were also thousands of people lining the streets on our way down waving flags. Every overpass had a fire truck with a huge American flag hanging from it. It was a really heart warming thing for a lot of us.”
Once they touched down in Washington, the group was treated to a dinner and banquet, which Patterson said featured some highly emotional speeches and stories from veterans. The next day, the group was taken on a tour around the capital to see the nation’s war memorials.
When it was time to return, Patterson said a crowd again was waiting in Denver to receive them — a stark contrast from his experience returning from the war, trading in ridicule and mockery for a reverent group of current military personnel and a band to trumpet their return.
For Patterson, the experience was uplifting, and he encouraged other veterans in the area to look into the opportunity.
“It was a real healing process for some of us,” Patterson said. “The major thing was that it was the first time we’d ever had any true welcoming home. It was a great feeling to see all those people come out.
“I’ve donated money to the Vietnam (Veterans Memorial) for years. I stopped doing that after this flight. My donations are now going to this. I thought it was that much more important.”
For more information, or to donate to the High Plains Honor Flight, visit HighPlainsHonorFlight.org.
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