For The Madera Tribune
Charisa Kelly wheels her grandfather Bob McCracken through Fresno Yosemite International Airport upon his return from a three-day visit to Washington, D.C., as a member of the Honor Flight.
When Bob McCracken was visiting the Iwo Jima Marine monument as part of a recent Honor Flight, there were many sights that stuck out to the former Vietnam veteran.
But there was one unexpected moment that stuck with McCracken.
When he and his group were readying to visit the monument in Arlington County, Virginia, two buses of high school kids formed an honor line as the veterans exited their bus.
For McCracken, their gesture of kindness and respect to them and their mission was heartwarming.
“As we got off the bus, they formed an honor line up the walkway,” McCracken said. “It was really touching for us to see that.”
McCracken, a flight-deck corpsman and helicopter corpsman on the USS Yorktown in Vietnam, took part in the Honor Flight to the east coast recently, after three years of waiting.
Along with his granddaughter, Charisa Kelly, as his handler, McCracken and 68 other veterans took part in the trip meant to honor the veterans still with us, but also to honor the ones that were lost.
Over three days, the 68 visited a handful of memorial sites throughout Maryland, including the Marine (Iwo Jima) Memorial, Vietnam Memorial and a walk to the Korean War Memorial, among others.
“We would wake up early around 5:30 a.m. for breakfast and then load onto buses where we were taken to the memorials. Many of us are disabled and they gave us all wheelchairs. It was a nice gesture and we were all thankful for their help. And I was thankful for my granddaughter’s help, who pushed me around.”
The veterans on the Honor Flight were given an exclusive detail as police motorcycles would escort them around. Even so much as to forcing cars out of the way.
“It was funny because if we came up to a dead stop, a traffic jam, the motorcycle police would drive up to the car windows and bang on them to tell them to get off the road,” McCracken said.
On day one, they visited the Marine memorial, which is the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. A huge bronze statue honors the Marines for what they did on that day.
“We were told that three of the faces on the memorial were actually the marines’ faces taken from photos,” McCracken said.
McCracken then visited the World War II Memorial, where they took a group photo of all the participants. That photo included the veterans, handlers, staff and media personnel. The group then saw the Air Force Memorial and the National Museum of the U.S. Navy.
The Air Force memorial, which was three large metal spirals reaching up into the air was so tall it was almost impossible to get a photo if you were too close McCracken said.
But at the museum, his group was one of the first to see it open to the public.
“It was fascinating, and being a Navy man myself, they had miniature ship models all over the place, which was fascinating. I was on the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier and to show my granddaughter the ship was fascinating for her.”
Kelly, an occupational therapist in Monterey will remember that trip with her grandfather, whom she considers her hero.
“Overall the trip for me was a once in a lifetime experience. My whole life my grandpa has told us stories about his time in Vietnam and I feel like those three days with him allowed me to see those stories in a whole light,” Kelly said. “The trip allowed me to experience his memories with him and reminded him of details that he hadn’t shared before.
“It will forever be a trip that is so close to my heart. Seeing his ship was surreal because, although it was a model, it was huge and to imagine him on it just made his stories that much more real.”
The group made it to the Vietnam Memorial and, for McCracken, that was the hardest part of the trip.
McCracken served in Vietnam from 1965-1966. He was a corpsman in the Navy and one of his numerous roles was to help lift wounded soldiers out of danger and back to a friendly base.
During one mission in 1966, McCracken was severely injured, while rescuing a fellow soldier.
McCracken was forced to jump from his helicopter in order to help a wounded soldier. He jumped into the jungle below and severely injured both legs, forcing him into an early retirement from the military.
He was immediately taken back to base and flown to a nearby hospital for medical care. McCracken nearly sacrificed his life in order to save another U.S. soldier.
The Vietnam Memorial represents service members who died in during the war and those service members who were unaccounted for. Almost 60,000 American soldiers lost their lives, and some close to McCracken.
“That was very hard for me. I knew two of the people,” he said.
McCracken and the 67 then visited the Korean War Memorial and the next day followed up at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There, they witnessed the changing of the guard and, for McCracken, the amount of work they put into this ceremony is worth the watch.
“The Army soldiers that march day in and day out, sunshine or rain — didn’t matter. They were so precise in their movement it was unbelievable. It took them seven years to train for this, to be the honor guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was really something,” McCracken said.
They marched 21 steps from one end to the other, with the rifle on one shoulder and they clicked their heir heels when they got to the last step and turned around, clicked their heels and walked back to where they started.
The Women’s Memorial was next on the agenda before going to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum before getting on the plane and heading back.
When they got back to Fresno, members of the Honor Flight were treated to a hero’s welcome.
“It was fabulous, they treated us like kings,” McCracken said. “It was gorgeous, but I would ask that if anyone is capable to donate, I would ask them to because I think there are 7,000 Vietnam veterans in just the Valley alone. We would very much appreciate to have them see this wonderful trip; it was absolutely fascinating.”
The Honor Flight program gives back to the individuals who gave so much to the country. Both the laughter and the tears are something every veteran deserves a chance to experience.
“I don’t think I ever truly understood what they went through back then and this trip allowed me to really see and learn about serving your country and the price it comes at sometimes. My grandpa has always been my hero, this trip just made him that much more special to me,” Kelly said.
“I can’t Thank Central Valley Honor Flight enough for all they do, and I know I’d love to volunteer again if I ever have the chance.”