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A Healing Journey for Arizona Veterans

holliday-moore
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Guest blogger Holliday Moore is a Phoenix native with more than 25 years of experience in the local and national broadcast and media industry. She works part time for KTAR Radio while volunteering for her young son's elementary school and running a freelance media services business. Southwest Airlines is proud to celebrate our fourth annual Military Heroes Month.  This is a time for us to honor and thank our service men and women who safeguard our country all year long. One of the many ways we celebrate is through our support of Operation Freedom Bird, an organization we have proudly supported for more than10 years.
The trip to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington begins at Sky Harbor. (KTAR Photo/Holliday) Moore
The trip to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington begins at Sky Harbor. (KTAR Photo/Holliday) Moore
They deployed from Phoenix at 0700 Saturday morning. Their mission: Find the enemy inside. They are the newest members of Operation Freedom Bird (OFB), a nonprofit organization that provides a unique healing journey to Arizona's combat Veterans of all wars, giving them an opportunity to confront their feelings, share their experiences, and pay tribute to their fallen comrades-in-arms in a supportive environment of fellow Veterans and concerned counselors. Their journey to Washington, DC, was a healing journey, and it was psychological counselors Annette Hill-Puccia and Joe Little's jobs to get the men and women to look at what's inside.  For Lake Havasu's Joe DiGiacomo, it's mainly guilt that has followed him since he piloted swift boats in Vietnam through the late 1960s. "Just prior to the Tet Offense, I had received notice of supplies coming up the river. There were supposed to be three boats taking off together. We were to be the lead boat," he said during the first group counseling session. "But, our engines wouldn't start, so the other two boats took off." He took a moment to hold back tears.  "As we were catching up, a rocket hit the lead boat," he continued. The pilot was killed immediately, DiGiacomo said. "He was one of the first friends I made over there. He was the one who took me under his wing." DiGiacamo left the service and eventually joined the Yavapai County Sheriff's department. Everything seemed normal until 1999, when hidden emotions were triggered as he and eight other deputies pulled over a suspected car thief. "About 57 shots were fired in a span of two to three minutes," he said. "My whole world changed. I was seeing the boats and thrown right back into Vietnam."  He said chest pains, panic attacks and feelings of paranoia grew and forced him to retire from a job he loved.  "It wasn't until I was seen by a VA center psychologist that we identified I had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)." Throughout the weekend, similar stories spilled out as the 24 veterans felt accepted by their peers. Many had never spoken before about the horrors they witnessed while in combat. Some of those horrors come from as far back as World War II, and as recent as Operation Enduring Freedom. The Wall
At the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, Nov. 11, 2013.(Photo/Bradley Heck)
At the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, Nov. 11, 2013.(Photo/Bradley Heck)
The first night in Washington, the vets took a drive to the Vietnam Memorial. "A lot of stuff happens over here," Little told them as they stood in a solemn circle. "Don't push it down. Be open to cry," he said. It was dark, and the temperature outside was quickly dropping to the mid-30s. But when World War II vet Bob Emmett touched the wall, it was warm to the touch. He didn't know any of the 58,000 or more Vietnam veterans' names that were on the wall, but it still moved him to tears. Younger veterans from Vietnam and later conflicts look up to Emmett. He is one of the remaining few soldiers from the famed Merrill's Marauders, who fought behind enemy lines near China. Looking at the names on the wall and younger vets on the journey, he is among friends. "These men are my buddies. They're all my buddies," he said. The 88-year old has quickly become the group's honorary leader, first by showing up and then opening up. He was the first among the group to let the tears flow after 70 years of survivor's guilt. "They figure if it wasn't for me, they couldn't be here or couldn't fight," he said, "but, I couldn't save (the Vietnam vets) or 2,400 of my guys (in Myanmar, then known as Burma, in May of 1944)." For Vietnam veteran Wayne Fulton, it's a second journey to the wall. "I thought this year would be easier," he said, as he found his best friend James R. West's name etched on the wall. "Jimmy and I were signing up for the military together, but I didn't pass my English class that year," which held up his deployment. West died in combat a short time later. "And I just keep asking myself if it would have been any different if we'd gone together." For the next three days, the vets visited the wall, their grief gradually subsiding as they pulled tokens and mementos from their rucksacks and left them at the wall. History
Veterans Chris Liby and Jason McGowan visit the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington on Nov. 11, 2013. (KTAR Photo/Holliday Moore)
Veterans Chris Liby and Jason McGowan visit the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington on Nov. 11, 2013. (KTAR Photo/Holliday Moore)
When OFB began in 1988, it focused solely on combat vets from Vietnam. The title derived from the nickname "Freedom Bird," the final aircraft closing a tour. Vietnam veteran Pat Lynch founded OFB. "I came home after the Army and felt, 'That's it?' " Lynch said.  "I wanted to see the wall, and I didn't want to go alone," he said. The first flight took off for the nation's capital, two days before Veterans Day in 1988, with 50 combat members from the Phoenix Veterans Center. The mission has not failed for the past 26 years, Lynch said. Expanding the need OFB is the only organization of its kind in the country, and it almost did not happen this year as it underwent restructuring to include more veterans from all conflicts. "I wanted to find as many people as possible who were eligible for this journey," said board President Patrick Ziegert. They widened the requirements for qualifying candidates. "This year we opened our process for identifying candidates to go beyond the vet centers," said Ziegert. "Our goal is to include candidates from all health services including military, government, and community providers." The other goal, he said, was to "establish better communication between those providers." Right now, military members see military doctors, while vets must go to the VA or a private doctor. With cooperation, Ziegert hoped to simplify the process so that, “we can create a no wrong person, no wrong door approach."  As with anything related to government, progress can move at a glacial pace, especially when change is at hand. In OFB's case, it fell short thousands of dollars for the journey this year. Lynch and Ziegert discussed skipping the journey, but grass-roots donations saved the day, Ziegert said. They had enough to bring 30 members to Washington and trial-run the new inclusive approach. As the 24 vets returned home Tuesday night, the new approach appeared to have worked. Their tightly folded arms and silence on Saturday gave way to hugs and long bouts of laughter. Their journey had come full circle as the Southwest jet pulled into the hangar at Sky Harbor. Inside, a huge crowd had gathered to welcome them home. At a nearby hangar, families waited to wrap their arms around the returning heroes.