trip offers new perspective to local veterinarian | News, Sports, Jobs

Pictured are former Vietnam veteran and infantry medic Harold Tooley and his grandson Hayden Tooley. Photos submitted

Former infantry doctor Harold Tooley said a recent Honor Flight trip to Washington, DC changed his perspective on how people view veterans who fought in the Vietnam War.

“When I came back from Vietnam, it was not good” said the Forestville resident. “It was bad, and I have horrible memories from 1968 until recently.”

Tooley said the service members weren’t properly welcomed back from Vietnam, except for family members and a few close friends. He recalled how people labeled him and his fellow soldiers “baby killers” for their role in the Vietnam War.

After decades of living with the painful memories of war and being ashamed of the American people he fought for, Tooley said the Honor Flight trip changed everything.

“This year has shown me that over the years people have started to see our military in a different light,” he said.

Tooley described the “call-by-mail” part of the honor flight as one of the highlights of the trip. Cards were submitted by young students thanking Tooley for his service on behalf of the nation.

Tooley compared the appreciation and honor he received from the American people during the honor flight to the original World War II veterans reception with “ticker parades.”

“The soldiers were well received, and they were appreciated”, he said. “We see it now. This honor flight did me a lot of good. I so appreciate what Honor Flight has done for me and for all of us.

As part of the Honor Flight experience, Tooley said each of the veterans came with a “Guardian” to ensure their safety. Tooley said his grandson, Hayden Tooley, was able to accompany him to Washington as a guardian. The honor flight served as a bonding experience between the veteran and his grandson.

“The best person in the world who could do it”, Tooley said. “We are so close, and I feel closer to him now than before.”

The Honor Flight experience included a tour of the various US military memorials in Washington DC Tooley said the group’s visit to Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was particularly moving.

“They brought in two WWII gentlemen in their wheelchairs and a sentry had them help change the crown of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” he said. “I don’t think there was a dry eye. It was so moving.

At the Vietnam Memorial, Tooley’s grandson helped him track down the names of two of his fellow servicemen who lost their lives in the war. One of the men was Larry Smith, a former classmate of Tooley, who was killed in Vietnam. Tooley and his grandson were also able to locate the name of his former sergeant.

“He died in my arms” Tooley said. “I loved him like my own brother. I cried the day he died.”

Another highlight of the Honor Flight trip was the “call by mail” surprise for each of the veterans. The mail call is a reminder of the importance of soldiers receiving letters in the mail while serving in the country. Tooley said it was “huge” for service members to receive letters from home. During the recent honor flight experience, Tooley and the other veterans received letters from young college students thanking the veterans for their sacrificial service to the United States.

Tooley said he can’t thank the people who organize Honor Flight enough for what they’ve done to honor him and his fellow veterans.

“What an honor it was to be welcomed and to be loved and appreciated,” he said. “It was a blessing and a half for me. I will never forget Honor Flight. I will never forget the kindness. If I can say anything to encourage another veteran to go, I will. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life. It meant the world to me.

Tooley explained that he was wounded just before a battle where his company suffered heavy casualties.

“I stepped on a mine” he said. “The day after my injury, it was a bloodbath. Several of the men I knew were killed.

Despite his injury, Tooley said he didn’t want to be sent home.

“When I was injured, I didn’t want to go home” he said. “I begged them to let me stay with my guys there.”

As an infantry medic, Tooley witnessed unspeakable horrors, suffered immense casualties, and watched people die in his arms. However, despite being injured, losing friends and witnessing traumatic experiences, Tooley said he would fight again today for his country if given the chance.

“I would do it again” he said. “My country means so much to me. We never met, but when I went to Vietnam to fight communism, I did it for you so you could be free.

Having faced what he described as the “the ugliness of communism” during the Vietnam War, Tooley said the United States was “the best country in the world”. While Tooley said the Vietnam War was a “awful day” in the history of the United States and the nation’s attitudes have always been against Vietnam veterans, he thinks something good has finally come out of a terrible situation.

“God took a bad thing and turned it into something really good”, he said. “Something good is Honor Flight, and people are changing their attitude towards the military. It’s really good that something has come out of it. We are now being shown respect and appreciation. For me, that’s the good side of it.”

Tooley said another positive thing that came out of his time in the service was that he was able to help others by speaking about his experience in the Vietnam War. Tooley has spoken at several public schools and shared his experience to help inspire others.

“I always do that” he said. “It gives me a good feeling and it helps someone else.”

Barb Cessna, Project Vets Finding Vets Coordinator, can help facilitate the application process, answer questions, and coordinate travel to Buffalo for the honor flight and return to Chautauqua County at no cost to veterans. Cessna can be reached at the Fenton History Center at 716-664-6256.

The Vets Finding Vets Project Coordinator’s planning hours are paid for in part by a grant from the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation.

Today’s breaking news and more to your inbox

Leave a Reply