William Michael Paul makes a rubbing of his fallen friend. Photo: Puget Sound Honor Flight

In May, William Michael Paul, 77, a Lake Minterwood resident for 19 years, became the latest KP Vietnam veteran flown by Puget Sound Honor Flight to visit memorials built to commemorate military service by a nation that has not always been as grateful as it might have been.

Paul, a retired engineer and professional actor, said “I’ve been blessed with movie credits, stage work, acting awards, speaking awards, but this was the most humbling experience of my life.”

The Honor Flight Network is a nationwide nonprofit organization created in 2005 to honor America’s veterans by transporting them free of charge to visit and reflect at the memorials in Washington, D.C. Over 200,000 vets have been flown to date.

“My husband and I got involved in 2013,” said Renee Peavey, until recently a longtime KP resident. After expressing interest in volunteering, Renee and Jim were encouraged to start their own Honor Flight hub in Western Washington, where 250 flight applications were languishing.

“So, we started a nonprofit, which neither one of us had done. We had our first board meeting in late 2013 and our first trip was that October. Since then we’ve made 24 trips and taken over 1,300 Western Washington veterans back to D.C.”

Renee is now co-director of Puget Sound Honor Flight, one of 130 such hubs across the country. It is an all-volunteer organization and the trips are completely free for veterans. “It’s all paid for by donations, VFWs, things like that, we get no federal funding,” she said. “You have to have worn the uniform of the U.S. military; that qualifies you to be on an honor flight.” Priority is given to World War II veterans, followed by Korea and Vietnam veterans.

Renee ran into Paul at a Gig Harbor military ball almost two years ago and invited him to apply for a flight.

“I thought, no, that’s for WWII vets, I was just a Vietnam vet,” Paul said. “She pointed out that less than 1 percent of the population joins the military. I had no idea of that; being of a military mind I kind of thought everybody did. My whole family are Marines, Navy, Army—aunts, uncles and brothers—we’re all military. I just never gave it a thought.

“So, I did sign up,” he said.

Paul flew to D.C. in May on a plane mostly full of veterans and their companions and Honor Flight personnel.

“We make four trips a year and we take 112 people,” Renee said. “We have a partnership with Alaska Airlines, which has been very generous to us, so we get 112 of the 168 seats on the plane; it’s kind of like a charter. We pay for our tickets, Alaska gives us a discount and they give us free food, free drinks, they decorate the departure gate and the arrival gate for a surprise homecoming with an honor guard. They’re amazing.”

Paul at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Photo: Puget Sound Honor Flight

It’s a three-day trip that includes a ceremony at the WWII memorial, visits to the Korea and Vietnam War memorials and other monuments, and the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery.

“I went as a blank slate because I didn’t know what to expect,” Paul said. “There wasn’t a soul that didn’t cry at some point. Lots of the WWII vets being recognized battled hard to get there, and most of them were in wheelchairs. Their stories really got me.”

More Vietnam vets are starting to apply for Honor Flight trips, Renee said, and she encourages them.

“It’s a different dynamic,” she said. “We’re taking some that are half skeptical, and then they have a great experience that helped maybe get a little closure. What’s happening is that the Vietnam War was so long ago that people are starting to forget. It’s just a new generation and when people, kids and such, see these guys out there in their caps and shirts, it reminds them they were there and they’re still here.”

“I’m a Marine,” Paul said, “so the Iwo Jima Memorial was very emotional for me, because I’m Native American and most Native Americans go into the Marine Corps because of the code talkers and because of Ira Hayes, the Native American who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima, so that’s kind of our tradition.”

Paul served four years in the Marine Corps, deploying to Okinawa and Iwakuni, Japan, to provide air support for operations in Vietnam. He returned home in 1968.

In October 2018, Paul underwent surgery for Stage III kidney cancer, with a 50 percent chance of survival. He lost one kidney, then had a life-threatening battle with pneumonia. Renee had told him he had to be able to walk at least half a mile to be part of the Honor Flight trip. He started walking up and down his driveway, and then kept walking farther and farther. Six months later he was cancer free, and flew to D.C.

“I went to the Vietnam memorial, the wall,” he said. “I lost a friend and I rubbed his name, my friend John Sherman—we called him Jack—I made a rubbing of his name. Almost everybody there was rubbing a name. The whole spirit there was very, very emotional.

“There were a lot of tears, that’s all I can say.”

For more information go to pugetsoundhonorflight.org

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