RICES LANDING – Gary “Henry” Phillips was a year out of Cumberland High School when his country called his name. By fall of 1966 he was a 20-year-old radio operator and jeep driver in Vietnam. Three days before Thanksgiving, Gary was part of a caravan delivering frozen turkeys to fellow soldiers. His friends, Dennis R. Lehman, 20, and William Kennedy, 22, of the 87th Transportation Company, were in the vehicle behind him when a mortar round ripped through their truck. They were killed instantly.
When he returned home after two years of service in Vietnam, there was no fanfare and little talk of the war.
“It was kind of ugly. You kept to yourself. They didn’t care for you so much since you were a Vietnam vet,” Phillips said.
This was a sharp contrast to the hero’s welcome he would experience 45 years later this April as a recipient of an Honor Flight trip.
The Honor Flight Program flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at the nation’s war memorials. Top priority is given to senior veterans, World War II survivors, and those veterans who may be terminally ill. Phillips, a veteran of both Vietnam and Desert Storm, falls in the latter category. As a patient of Amedisys Hospice for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It was a nurse practitioner with the firm, Melany Chrash, who initiated the process for Henry’s Honor Flight.
“In my capacity as an instructor for Waynesburg University, I went to an end-of-life nursing education consortium in San Antonio, Texas,” said Chrash. “The conference was all about end-of-life care for veterans, and one of the speakers talked about the Honor Flight program.”
When Chrash came home she began investigating how to get a flight for Phillips. By late January the trip was a go. The Honor Flight is free to the veteran, but the cost for the caregiver is $400. Chrash’s students at Waynesburg University were ready to raise the funds when the Christen Foundation, Amedisys’ charitable private foundation, paid it.
It was agreed that Phillips’ wife, Debbie, could handle her husband’s care for the short trip. She was prepped and on April 5, Phillips’ 68th birthday, they were on their way.
“When he got out of the plane in Baltimore he was the only service guy on there. He had to walk through a tunnel into the airport. All of a sudden there were at least 200 people clapping and holding signs,” Debbie said. Phillips added, “I didn’t expect any of that, at all. I’d never seen anything like it.”
At the hotel, they joined a small group of fellow flight recipients. After being showered with gifts, the Patriot Guard Riders led the veterans to the WWII Memorial. Over the weekend they would visit Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard, the Lincoln Memorial, Iwo Jima statue, and the Air Force and Navy Memorials. But, it would be a simple but elegant granite wall that impacted Phillips the most.
“We went at night. The light was reflecting onto The Wall (the nickname of the Vietnam War memorial). It was dark all around it,” Debbie said. Phillips’ mission was obvious – find the names Kennedy and Lehman. A ranger for the National Park Service helped locate them and make an imprint for him.
“Kennedy was an only child. You didn’t have to go if you were an only child. He had to get his parents’ permission to go,” Phillips said. “He was the first one killed. It didn’t make sense.” Phillips is one of eight children.
“That day we weren’t given air support or the air support frequency. They said the road was secure, but it wasn’t. Never believe intelligence reports,” he said, noting that the road they traveled on became known as Ambush Alley for the frequency of attacks there.
Phillips’ military career ended in 1997 at the rank of master sergeant when he suffered a heart attack on active duty. He had put in his time.
On April 7, Debbie pushed her husband’s wheelchair from an elevator at Pittsburgh Airport into the welcome home celebration 45 years after he was unwelcomed back. Veterans groups, National Guardsmen, friends, family, his hospice team and a bagpiper were waiting for his return.
“There were two things that really got me and shook me up the most, The Wall and the people at the airport when I came back,” Phillips said a day later. A frame with 27 ribbons hung on a nearby wall. The 27 medals that go with them are on his dress blues. He has told his wife he wants to wear the uniform one last time, when his time comes.
“He wants to wear it with cowboy boots. I don’t know about that,” said Debbie, misty-eyed, but smiling.