THOMASTON — The advice Rockland native Ben Perry was given long ago was to not wear his uniform as he got off of the plane. His fellow Americans would jeer, taunt, and even spit on him. And when he told somebody that his landmark of choice for announcing his 1962 intent to re-enlist was center court of Boston Garden, he was again told – don’t do it. They’ll boo you right out of there.
Perry, who joined the Navy in September 1954, a few months before the end of the Korean War, and then reenlisted for service to the USS Davis, kept quiet. He didn’t show his uniform more than required, and when he reenlisted, with all the fun sucked from his Boston Garden dream, he simply made his re-enlistment statement right where he stood as that dream deflated.
Almost 70 years later, Perry was heavy with emotion when he arrived back at the Portland International Jetport after a late October 2023 weekend in Washington DC with Honor Flight of Maine. A large crowd had gathered in the airport’s ground floor space. The Honor Flight entourage of 50 veterans wore their service baseball caps, their Honor Flight T-shirts, and official lanyards and badges from the trip. Instead of booing and jeering and spitting, the crowd cheered, applauded, and congratulated.
Perry said he was probably one of the most emotional people there. It took him a moment to realize that a large group in the rear of the ceremony were family members. In fact, 15 relatives were there, none of whom he expected to see, and some of whom his wife, Mary, didn’t expect to see either.
After he saw his wife, he couldn’t keep it together.
“I never expected anyone there that I knew would welcome me home,” he said four days later, and still heavy with emotion.
Yet, it wasn’t just the return home that celebrated the veterans. The entire weekend welcomed the 50 veterans, the 50 caregivers, and their tour guides. Everywhere they went, the banners were raised. Along the DC roads, their shuttle buses were escorted by either police or 14 motorcycles. They were welcomed at each stop by active service members of each branch, (and on one occasion, Miss Maine and a historical re-enactor). At their first stop, a meal at Fort Mead – the birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner – they were entertained by the Enlisted Band.
Everything was very moving.
“I’ll never forget it,” said Perry, who was joined by his son Christopher, himself a navy veteran who later served in the Somalia region aboard the Abraham Lincoln.
But, it wasn’t just for themselves that the Perrys allowed for the minor inconveniences of what was otherwise an amazing trip. (Required wheelchairs, having to wait for civilians to depart the airplanes before the group could depart, and not being allowed to bring spouses - in general, spouses are close in age, so who would take care of the spouse?)
Being Rockland natives, they looked for Rockland names in Washington. Perry’s daughter had a classmate with a relative on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. They found the name high up, too high to reach for a rubbing, so found some workers willing to do the rubbings. Perry was astounded to find that these workers were Vietnamese.
Another unexpected reversal of history where both sides came together to welcome home those soldiers who, long ago, didn’t get their chance to walk with dignity off of a plane in uniform.
Reach Sarah Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org