Alumni and Archivist John Douglass Shares His Veteran Experiences

Part 1 of 3- Flight to Honor Program (check out future blogs for the rest of the story)

Recently I had the privilege of sharing in a very meaningful and personal experience with approximately eighty other veterans.   This event was made possible through the Flight to Honor program of Polk County.   The flight is held annually in conjunction with the Sun ‘n Fun Fly In here in Lakeland.

On April 11, 2018, approximately eighty vets and the guardians who accompanied them, gathered at 4 AM at Lakeland Linder Airport for breakfast before boarding a Southwest Airlines jet. My guardian was a young lady named Monica; we quickly became good friends. While we waited before dawn to board the flight, I showed Monica my cruise book from the USS Ranger (CVA -61). The Ranger was (it has now been decommissioned) an aircraft carrier scheduled to leave for Vietnam when I arrived in Alameda, California, in June 1972. The ship carried a crew of 5,000 men and was longer than three and one-half football fields and was the height of a twenty-story building.

In less than two hours we landed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. I expected little fanfare, but two fire trucks greeted us and provided a tunnel of water as we approached the gate. Inside I was amazed at the large crowd of people who had gathered to greet us. Everyone wanted to shake our hands and thank us for our service. A band played and the first of many festive occasions marked the start of a beautiful, cool day in Washington, D.C.

My thoughts drifted back to the day the Ranger arrived back in California from Vietnam in June 1973. There was little fanfare from a nation struggling with the loss of life by so many who gave their lives in Vietnam.

We boarded buses and soon arrived at the World War II Memorial. Once again a large contingent of people greeted us with signs and flags. Many were young men and women in their twenties and dressed in their Sunday best. In the conversations that ensued I realized that many of the volunteers were aids in the White House and often greeted the vets. After a visit around the beautiful monument and a picture of the vets in front of the massive fountain, we boarded the bus.

Next we arrived at the base of the Lincoln Memorial where the Reflecting Pool divided the Korean Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. We first circled the slightly larger than life size soldier statues that occupied a jungle setting at the Korean Memorial. A friend who served in Korea told me how eerily familiar the setting was from his days in Korea.

Next we walked to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where two, 246 foot long black granite walls, containing 144 panels, are etched with the names of over 58,000 men and women who gave their lives during this tumultuous period in our nation’s history. I used the directory at one end of the memorial to locate the names of several USS Ranger pilots whose planes went down in the Gulf of Tonkin on my cruise. When a visitor looks upon the wall, his or her reflection can be seen simultaneously with the engraved names, which is meant to symbolically bring the past and present together. I was moved by this quote describing the monument as a “wound that is closed and healing.”

We next made a hurried trip to Arlington National Cemetery where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located, along with the ceremonial changing of the guard. This was a wonderful time of reflection and reminder of the many who have gone before to purchase our freedom.

Upon arriving back at Reagan we were quickly escorted past the security equipment and boarded our plane where we enjoyed a delicious sandwich lunch on the flight home. About an hour before we landed in Lakeland someone made an announcement that our sponsors had one more surprise. Mail call, especially overseas on a ship, was a big deal.   Each vet was given a large, white envelope with at least fifty letters/pictures from Polk County students, along with cards from parents and local veteran associations. This was certainly a highlight of the day and so much fun to read each contribution.

As the plane taxied to our destination in Lakeland, we were again bombarded with water by two fire trucks. A large band played as we disembarked and hundreds of family members, friends, and well-wishers were there to greet us. Sheriff Judd and Lakeland Police Chief Giddens were among the crowd. Four “bomber girls” (picture Rosie the riveter) made sure we were cared for, and after shaking more hands we were reunited with our families.

[Stay tuned for additional blogs regarding Mr. Douglas service in the US Navy and how God used those years to grow and equip John to serve at LCS.]