SPRINGFIELD — Jennifer Smith communicated quite effectively even though the words she intended to use didn’t want to leave her lips. Her thoughts eventually escaped through her eyes and trickled down her cheeks in the form of tears.
Smith was overcome with emotion while recounting her experience as a guardian on an Honor Flight Savannah visit to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 13-15.
“It was a very rewarding trip,” she said.
Honor Flight Savannah is a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to transporting America’s veterans, at no cost to them, to the national memorials built and dedicated to honor their sacrifices in past wars.
Watching the veteran assigned to her, 75-year-old Stan Standefer, deal with painful memories while perched at the base of the Vietnam War Memorial was particularly moving for Smith
“There is a quote on the Disabled Veterans Memorial,” she said. “Basically, it says (veterans) didn’t want to go through what they went through but it was worth it if it they helped somebody else. That’s basically what (veterans) do.”
That quote echoed Sandefer’s sentiment perfectly. The Navy volunteer endured three Vietnam stints, achieving the rank of E-7. He received an honorable discharge in 1984 after 21 years of service.
“The reason I volunteered is because I didn’t have anything going on in my life that was exciting,” he said. “I thought, ‘If I go, maybe somebody else won’t have to go, somebody that had a family, somebody that had children or maybe some married guy.”
Faircloth was married and he still had to go to Vietnam. He became an Army E-7, serving 14 1/2 years.
“We were marred six months when I got drafted,” he said while looking at his wife, Marilyn.
“It was a devastating day,” she said. “It was my birthday. I thought, ‘Happy eighteenth birthday, Marilyn.”
Faircloth said he had a friend willing to help him avoid going to Vietnam but that is not what he wanted. A sense of duty permeated through him and his family, which boasts numerous veterans.
Like many Vietnam War veterans, Faircloth and Standefer waited for decades to be honored for their service. The conflict they participated in generated nationwide protests and mistreatment of U.S. military personnel at home.
“We were actually spit on when we came back,” Faircloth recalled.
Standefer remembered being called “baby killer” by a family member. He retaliated in anger, striking the accuser in the face.
The incident caused a 30-year rift that only recently was resolved.
Thanks to Honor Flight Savannah, Standefer and Faircloth finally got to be treated like heroes.
“It’s like Stan said on the bus — this is the homecoming he wanted when he came home from Vietnam,” Smith said.
Standefer was ecstatic when he learned that his honor flight application had been accepted.
“You probably heard me screaming, hollering and carrying on,” he joked. “It was a fantastic thing!”
Faircloth, 71, turned in an application several years ago and forgot about it. His interest was renewed last fall during an Honor Flight Savannah event conducted at the Mars Theatre in Springfield. It prompted him to try again.
Regardless of their former rank, Honor Flight Savannah participants are treated like high-ranking officers. They receive a rousing send-off from Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah and the special treatment and salutes never stop during the trip.
“They assigned guardians — baby-sitters — to every vet but I didn’t get one. I got an angel,” Standefer said in reference to Smith. “She treated me like I was cotton candy or something.”
Smith’s mother, Beverly Youmans, served as Faircloth’s guardian. She was also angelic but a lot more vocal than her daughter, Faircloth said.
Honor Flight Savannah’s send-off was the initial stage of a packed schedule that included stops at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, the U.S. Navy Museum & Memorial, the U.S. Air Force Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Women in Military Service to America Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
“(Visiting the Vietnam War Memorial) gave closure to me, especially seeing the name of one guy,” Standefer said. “If it hadn’t been for Jennifer, I probably would have fallen apart right there.”
“It was very emotional to see all the men find (the names of their buddies etched on the wall) and to see the monuments that were created for them,” Smith added. “It was also emotional to get to know them and hear their stories.”
Faircloth saw the Vietnam War Memorial for the first time about 15 years ago.
“But it was better this time,” he said.
“And the most impressive thing — other than my angel — was the Changing of the Guard (at Arlington National Cemetery),” Standefer said. “... If you went there and didn’t have a heart movement, you were dead because it is just that impressive — especially when you consider that the Army put something like that together. It would be a piece of cake for the Navy.”
Faircloth had a different opinon.
“To me, the World War II Memorial with those guys was the best part,” he said. “I also enjoyed the Women in Military Service to America Memorial. Even though I am a semi-male chauvinist, that one hit me just right.”
Faircloth was impressed by some of the brass that turned out to see the Savannah group. Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley, a four-star general, met it at the World War II Memorial and posed for pictures.
“He was wearing the new Army uniform they just came out with,” Faircloth said. “He kind of looked like a Marine.”
The lodging and food provided during the trip was also top-notch, Faircloth said.
Standefer and Faircloth enjoyed the camaraderie among the group of 39 veterans and guardians. They hope other area veterans will take an Honor Flight Savannah trip.
“Once you have a brother or sister in the military, you have a brother or sister for life,” Standefer said.
To learn more about Savannah Honor Flight and/or its next trip, visit www.honorflightsavannah.org or call Jerry Maennche at (912) 663-0322.