When Michael Lancaster returned from serving in Vietnam in 1970, he was met with a disgusting response at a West Coast airport.
“We came out of the bathroom, and a group of about 10 people called us horrible names and threw a bucket of pig’s blood on us,” said Lancaster, who lives in Peoria.
“It ruined our uniforms.”
Fifty years later, he received the welcome he deserved as part of Honor Flight, locally sponsored trips led by nonprofits that transport veterans to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C. The trips are free to the veterans.
“To have the recognition of people was amazing,” Lancaster said.
“The high school kids and teachers who came up to us and said, ‘Thank you for your service,’ was a totally awesome experience.’”
Honor Flight Arizona recognizes World War II veterans (served between Dec. 7, 1941, and Dec. 31, 1946), U.S. Armed Forces Cold War veterans (served between Jan. 1, 1946, and Feb. 27, 1961), U.S. armed forces Korean War veterans (served between June 25, 1950, and Jan. 31, 1955), and U.S. armed forces Vietnam War veterans (served between Feb. 28, 1961, and May 7, 1975).
“Honor Flight Arizona is thrilled to continue flying into June of this year,” added Robert Krug, Honor Flight Arizona vice president.
“We have a long waiting list of veterans after the COVID-19 pause, and it’s important to keep the flights going. Many veterans have told us it was the trip of a lifetime.”
Honor Flight Arizona took its first flight of 11 World War II veterans in November 2009 and has now flown more than 2,400 World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans.
Trips have also included more than 1,600 guardians assisting the veterans along the way. Honor Flight Arizona has a base of many active volunteers.
Honor Flight Arizona is part of the nationwide Honor Flight Network. The nonprofits accept private donations and corporate support. This trip’s sponsor was Daughters of the American Revolution-Yavapai Chapter.
When Lancaster left for his Honor Flight trip, TSA agents were dressed in special uniforms, and patrons rose from their seats to applaud and thank the veterans for their service.
Upon their arrival in Baltimore, Lancaster and his peers were thanked for their service, sending the veterans into a pool of tears.
“There’s a video of me shaking hands with a young man,” Lancaster said. “It was a very moving time. We went to the Vietnam Memorial and got very emotional.”
Hailing from Parker, Lancaster left for Vietnam with 14 others. Only six returned.
With Honor Flight, Lancaster and his peers also visited the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Air Force Memorial, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the Pentagon and Fort Lewis.
Now 73, Lancaster was an Army medic from 1968 to June 1981, so he was especially moved by the women’s memorial.
The memorial was dedicated in 1993 and includes a sculpture by Texas artist Glenna Goodacre depicting three women caring for a fallen soldier. Eight yellowwood trees surround the sculpture in honor of the eight servicewomen who gave their lives in Vietnam.
“I went over to the nurse memorial,” he said. “There were a couple nurses we lost in Vietnam. It was an awesome memorial. One nurse has a soldier lying across her lap. One is looking up at the helicopter. It’s a very, very moving memorial.”
On the return trip home, the group was once again met with clapping and applause.
“They had the honorary water cannon spray our plane,” he said.
“They did it in San Antonio and Sky Harbor.”
The water salute honors military veterans, foreign dignitaries and new airline service. Salutes typically involve two firefighting rigs spraying arcs of water over an arriving or departing flight. The two-minute display is a sign of respect, honor and gratitude.
“About an hour and a half before we landed at Sky Harbor, we had one last mail call. In Vietnam, the mail call was one of the most important things,” Lancaster said.
“On the plane, they read each person’s name, and they had letters from family members. I was in total tears when I opened the letters. It was a very moving, cleansing experience. I would highly recommend this to anyone else.
“It was a welcome I had never had before. There were tears from the start.”