Joe Hernandez, a U.S. Army veteran awarded a Purple Heart, sat in a wheelchair at the San Antonio International Airport with fellow veterans of every branch of service. To his left sat a World War II Navy veteran and to his right, a Korean War veteran.
“We all have our little different stories and some of us were in combat, some weren’t in combat, but it doesn’t make a difference,” said Hernandez, who served in Vietnam. “We all served our country together.”
The veterans were part of the first Honor Flight San Antonio group to travel since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Approximately 20 veterans boarded a Thursday morning flight to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials dedicated to their service, sacrifice and patriotism.
The nonprofit organization’s mission is to honor and celebrate veterans by paying all the trip’s expenses. The two-day trips occur twice a year, in May and September. This year, the trip was extended an extra day.
The group of veterans included three World War II veterans, five Korean War veterans and 12 Vietnam veterans, ranging in age from 72 to 97.
Hernandez was one of five Purple Heart recipients on the trip and was most thrilled to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the names of two friends killed in the conflict are engraved on the black granite wall.
He was just 20 years old when he got drafted and arrived in Vietnam in March 1969.
“I was just doing my duty for my country,” said Hernandez.
Two months after arriving in Vietnam, he was on a tank at 3 a.m. when his group was hit by six rocket propelled grenades, three of which hit his tank, destroying it completely, he said.
He had no protective gear on, he said, but his instinct was to call his lieutenant and help his soldiers.
“A rocket propelled grenade hit within 5 feet of me and I got injured by 40 pieces of shrapnel in my body,” said Hernandez. “I was 20 years old and I was feeling sorry for myself, until they brought some guys that lost two arms and two legs and I considered myself lucky at that time, but I still hurt.”
A year and eight months into his service, he was medically retired.
For Hernandez, the trip to Washington was a long time coming. He first applied for the opportunity four years ago, and two years later was contacted to go on the trip. Then the pandemic hit, putting the trip on hold.
Nearly a month ago, Hernandez was notified that Honor Flights would resume.
Honor Flight San Antonio was established in 2014 and is part of a nationwide network that takes groups of veterans to D.C. Thursday’s flight marked the San Antonio group’s 14th trip, said board member Randy Brown.
“Being a veteran myself, it’s truly an honor to be able to do this,” said Brown, his eyes filling with tears. “Most [veterans] tell us they really didn’t want to do this and their family usually forced him into it, but once they get back from the trip, their comment is, ‘Why did I wait so long to do this?’ and it’s truly a trip of a lifetime.”
Brown, who served 24 years in the U.S. Air Force, said his involvement in Honor Flight San Antonio was simply to give back to his predecessors, calling the trips “an act of love.”
While other Honor Flights around the country take 100 to 200 veterans per trip, Brown said the San Antonio group is smaller by design, with each veteran accompanied by a family member or volunteer guardian.
“We’ve talked to a lot of those veterans in D.C. while we’ve been there on various trips and they all had the same comment, that they just felt like they were kind of a number, so we want to make this a very personal experience,” he said. “We get to know every one of the veterans and the guardians on these trips, because of the smaller group.”