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Honoring Our Heroes: Naval Special Warfare Veterans’ Honor Flight Journey to DC

by By MC1 Ramon Go
30 April 2024 Ninety Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Vietnam War veterans and their accompanying “guardians” flew to Washington D.C. for Honor Flight San Diego’s (HFSD) “Tour of Honor,” April 26-28.

The journey was the first dedicated exclusively to NSW operators and featured Honor Flight guardians composed of volunteer active-duty and former NSW operators who lent assistance - both physically and spiritually - during the fast-paced three-day tribute which began with the veterans' exchanging smiles, laughter and the occasional faded black-and-white snapshots of their youth.

Leaving San Diego featured a tone-setting boarding where Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” echoed through the jetway as airline employees formed an applause line just in front of the escort plane’s fuselage logo, "Honoring Those who Serve."

The positive vibes continued during the five-hour journey when the plane’s captain made a surprise announcement: “Mail Call, Mail Call,” where approximately 70 letters were delivered to each veteran. Hands which once wielded the deadly tools of special warfare deftly opened heartfelt messages of deep appreciation, love and admiration from family, friends, children and strangers from around the world. These letters heralded their courage and grit, their dedication and love in fighting one of America’s most unpopular wars. Most of these heroes returned from their little-known riverine battles during a time when scattered public appreciation was drowned out with heavy doses of scorn and protest.

The “Tour of Honor” at our nation’s capital started early as four busses toured the Marine Corps, World War II and U.S. Navy Memorials. But it was the time spent at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where substantive reflection took place. There, the jet-lagged, yet spirited veterans helped place a custom-designed tribute featuring the names and images of the 55 NSW operators who didn’t make it home or were killed in action or in training during the war from 1957 to 1975.

After the all-day journey, guardian and Naval Special Warfare Force Master Chief (SEAL) Walter Dittmar, provided the evening’s keynote remarks emphasizing his community’s debt of gratitude owed to the room of august warriors.

“I am honored, I am humbled, and I am blessed. My voice to you veterans is not mine…the words I will share with you are from the 10,000 members of the NSW community. I pray that these words communicate how highly we think of you and how much we appreciate what you have given to the NSW community.

To my veterans, you and your entire generation not only prepared me, but you have prepared NSW for something they didn’t know was coming. You taught us disciple, attention to detail, you hammered rehearsals, tactics, movement, you taught us how to survive in combat, how to take care of our gear, and how to take care of each other. You taught us how to adapt, how to think. You taught us how to be ready. That is what you gave us, your gift to us. Our successes are because of you, and it was you who prepared us for what would come. Those of you who survived, we owe you our lives. Thank you,” proclaimed Dittmar concluding a spirited delivery which – within the short yet visceral remarks - evoked rounds of laughter, moments of silence and tears, but ended with a rousing NSW traditional “Hooo-Ya!” cheer.

This unifying moment galvanized and re-centered the jet-lagged gathering of the brotherhood, as it reinforced a signature element emphasizing the significance of the SEAL Ethos.

“My trident is a symbol of honor and heritage bestowed upon me by the heroes that have gone before it, it embodies the trust of those I have sworn to protect.”

The Tour of Honor continued the next day with a few more surprises. First, the weary veterans were immediately welcomed home by Rear Adm. Keith Davids, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, where he extended his deepest gratitude for their service.

"It is indeed a tremendous honor to shake their hands and personally express gratitude for their invaluable contributions to the NSW community and the Navy,” said Davids. “Their legacy reverberates far beyond their years, inspiring generations of future NSW personnel."

Meanwhile, over 800 friends, family, and eager supporters erupted into a cacophony of welcoming cheers, applause, announcements, and patriotic music as the first veteran – Medal of Honor recipient Mike Thornton passed through volunteer honor sideboys from USS Essex (LHD 2) and Naval Medical Center San Diego. and descended the escalator into a frothy sea of American-style appreciation once sadly withheld from most Vietnam War vets…but no more.

Julie Brightwell, Honor Flight San Diego’s Chairman, along with dozens of HFSD volunteers orchestrated the entire journey to include secretly coordinating hundreds of raucous supporters who made their long-delayed hero’s homecoming memorable and spiritually fulfilling.

HFSD is a branch of the larger Honor Flight Network, chartered in 2005 by Jeff Miller and Earl Morse, with a mission to honor war veterans by exposing them to D.C.’s tribute memorials built specifically to commemorate their service and sacrifice.

NSW is the nation’s premiere maritime special operations force and is uniquely positioned to extend the fleet’s reach and deliver all-domain options for naval and joint force commanders.