MIAMI — A dream of longtime area educator and Vietnam veteran Bob Gelso to go on an honor flight to Washington, D.C, seemingly collapsed when the organization he had filed paperwork with folded.
But thanks to Ozark Honor Flight, he was able to realize that opportunity.
And wow, he was glad he had the chance.
He originally had filed paperwork with another organization, but learned it had shut down.
Somehow, his name got transferred to the Missouri group and he got a call about three months ago and was asked if he still wanted to make the trip.
He said “Oh my, yes.”
“It was a ‘welcome home’ for those that didn’t get welcomed home — primarily Vietnam,” Gelso said. “There were World War II and Korean veterans there but…
“From the time I first went in on the 13th (an orientation session on Oct. 13) to the time I left on the 22nd (the flight to D.C.) about 10:30, it was ‘welcome home!’ ‘welcome home!’ ‘welcome home!’ he said. “They said ‘We’re glad you’re here’ or ‘thank you for your service.’”
Gelso attended the orientation session, then reported for the trip about a week later.
“It was just unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve never had so many lumps in my throat in my life.”
Gelso served in the Central Highlands in Vietnam in 1969-70 with the 4th Infantry Division at Plae Ku and Hon Gai.
After returning to the United States, he launched a 50-year career in education with stops in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, and also taught at Riverton, Kansas, Missouri Southern State College, Crowder College, Labette Community College, and Pittsburg State University and then spent 18 years at the Northeast Tech Afton campus.
He said the group received a royal welcome as they got off the plane back in Springfield.
The Springfield group landed in D.C. at 7:30 a.m. that morning and loaded on four buses.
Gelso said each person had a different colored lanyard to help keep track of the correct shuttle they were riding.
It came in handy.
“Sometime this summer, they had a Springfield, Illinois, group at the same time and lost two of their people. It took a while to find them.”
Among the stops in Washington were the World War II, Korean and Vietnam and various other military memorials, the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington Cemetery.
“I never knew much about World War II, but there were 4,000-some stars on a special wall. Each star represented 1,000 troops that had been killed. It was huge with fountains.”
During the stop at the Vietnam Memorial, Gelso was able to find the names of two friends that were killed; one a high school friend and the other was an officer who was in a class at the Pittsburg State Military Science Department.”
Gelso said they had graduated together in 1969.
Another highlight was watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“Total respect… it is dead silence,” Gelso said. “Everything is based on 21; a 21-gun salute starts it, the guy walks back and forth 21 steps, he turns and waits 21 seconds then turns again 21 seconds, 21 steps. They always turn towards the tomb.”
Gelso said there was a big surprise on the trip home: mail call.
“Everybody got an envelope and was doing pretty good reading the grade school letters, then up pops one from Joyce (his wife),” he said. “I lost it.”
He also got letters from his children, nieces and nephews, his sister and her children.”
He said the flight crew ran out of tissues and wound up passing around paper towels.