A scene at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial from an Honor Flight of the Ozarks flight on August 23, 2023. (Photo by Miles Boyer)

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the title of David Snider, flight coordinator for Honor Flight of the Ozarks.

There are 58,267 names etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. On a bright day in August 2023, Army veteran and former Chinook helicopter crew chief Ross Giacomo found the one name he was looking for, and pressed his fingers into the name of his fallen fellow crew chief Robert C. Tedford.

Both men had been flying a mission and alternating duty in the cockpit when Giacomo took his break and moved to the back of the aircraft. Suddenly, incoming fire hit the cockpit, Tedford was thrown from the aircraft and killed.

At the wall studying the name of his fallen friend, Giacomo stepped back and sighed, “I have stage 4 lung cancer.” He gestured to the heavens, “And it won’t be much longer. I’ll be up there with him.”

Ross Giacomo died three months later. But his story and those of 80 other military veterans who were with him that August day in Washington, D.C., are the subject of a 90-minute documentary, “In Gratitude,” airing March 28 and April 1 on Ozarks Public Television.

It’s the story of Honor Flight of the Ozarks, and so much more. Best to keep some tissues handy.

Watch the documentary

The documentary “In Gratitude…Honor Flight of the Ozarks,” will air on Ozarks Public Television KOZK 21.1 (KOZJ 26.1 Joplin) at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 28, and Monday, April 1. The documentary was produced by videographers and still photographers with Ozarks Public Television.

A travelog about Honor Flight of the Ozarks is also planned for 2 p.m. Thursday, May 16, at the Schweitzer Brentwood Branch Library, 2214 Brentwood Blvd. Speakers include Honor Flight board members Ned Reynolds and Gary Ellison.

To honor all veterans

Honor Flight of the Ozarks is an all-volunteer nonprofit that takes military veterans on a one-day chartered plane from the Springfield National Airport to tour the war memorials in Washington, D.C. It takes three trips per year.

Veterans, guardians and others participating in Honor Flight on August 23, 2023 visit the World War II Memorial. (Photo by Miles Boyer)

Eighty-one veterans and 81 guardians make the trip with a volunteer staff, dozens of wheelchairs and four volunteer teams of a physician and nurse or paramedic to oversee the vets on the plane and motor coaches chartered for the D.C. tour.

Any veteran from southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas who received an honorable discharge from the military is eligible to go at no cost. They can have served overseas or stateside in any branch of the U.S. military during World War II, Korean or Vietnam wars, or the Gulf War. Their guardians — a family member, friend or community volunteer — pays a $500 fee to offset the trip costs.

Each of the three annual trips including charter flight, motor coaches, meals and supplies can run up to $180,000, so the nonprofit raises money year-round, says David Snider, flight coordinator for Honor Flight and an Army veteran.

David Snider is the Director and Flight Coordinator for Honor Flight of the Ozarks. (Photo by Kathleen O'Dell)

The goal of the project, he says, is to honor veterans for their service and sacrifice with VIP treatment during a tour of Washington’s iconic war memorials.

Veterans who are strangers in the morning become fast friends, says Honor Flight board member Gary Ellison. “I’ve heard them at the airport saying, ‘This has been the most incredible day of my life.’”

Commemorating 10 years and trips for 1,645 veterans

This year marks the 10-year anniversary for Honor Flight of the Ozarks. Since launching in early 2014 (minus two pandemic years), it has taken 1,645 area veterans on the trip. (A separate group, Ozarks Honor Flight, focused on World War II vets for several years until its last trip in 2012.)

Honor Flight of the Ozarks is one of 128 “hubs” in the Honor Flight network, which has flown roughly 275,000 veterans since 2005 and more are eager to go.

In Springfield, some 600 veterans are on the waitlist to make the trip after Honor Flight added 13 northwest Arkansas counties to its hub. World War II and terminally ill veterans are chosen first. Vietnam-era veterans make up the largest number going now, and Snider encourages Gulf War-era veterans to apply. The Desert Shield and Desert Storm Memorial in D.C. is expected to be dedicated in 2025.

A veteran at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Ozarks Public Television)

In marking its decade of storied trips, Honor Flight staff wanted to go beyond showing TV news clips of veterans’ “coming home” patriotic celebration at the Springfield airport. So they collaborated with OPT to document the experience from start to finish through the veterans’ stories that unfolded in that 17-hour day on Aug. 23.

On board were two World War II veterans, 19 from the Korean War and 60 from the Vietnam era including a female Navy nurse. Average age of the vets was 83.

Who can participate in Honor Flight

  • Veterans: Any veteran in southwest Missouri or northwest Arkansas who received an honorable discharge from the military is eligible to go on an Honor Flight at no cost. The veteran must have served overseas or stateside during World War II, Korea War, the Vietnam War era or the Gulf War.
  • Guardians: A guardian accompanies each veteran on the trip for $500.
  • Veteran and guardian applications are available on the Honor Flight of the Ozarks website.
  • Honoring American Heroes: In this program, families wishing to memorialize a deceased veteran may send his or her framed photograph on the flight at no cost. A designated guardian then displays the photograph at the veteran’s respective memorial during the tour. The family later receives a photograph of their loved one’s portrait displayed at the memorial. Complete an application here.

A welcome long overdue

For some veterans, it was the first time they’ve been celebrated for their service — so many returned from service and blended quietly back into the workforce.

For Vietnam veteran and Branson resident Ron Skywater, it was the first time he felt welcomed and respected for his service. Skywater, a native Navajo, says he was recruited off the reservation as a young man and served in the Air Force.

As a C-141A crew chief, Skywater helped haul troops and equipment in and out of Vietnam. On one particular flight that’s still painful to recount, he looked into the fuselage to discover the entire aircraft carried nothing but caskets. When he returned to his Navajo reservation, he told the documentary crew, he was so ostracized by his community for taking any part in the war that he left for good. That pain has never left.

Bob Dothage, a Vietnam-era veteran who served stateside in the National Guard as a Huey helicopter mechanic and crew chief, went on an Honor Flight in 2022 and talks about his experiences. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Springfieldian Bob Dothage, a Vietnam-era veteran who served stateside in the National Guard as a Huey helicopter mechanic and crew chief, went on an Honor Flight in 2022. He remembers feeling less deserving of the honor than his fellow Vietnam brothers and sisters who had seen combat and were spat on when they returned to the states. And yet on the flight, regardless how they served, they were celebrated as heroes and told: “‘You as the veterans are the most important persons here today,’ and they treated us that way,” he says.

Ellen Duvall, a former flight honoree and now volunteer, understands why the trip together is so powerful. She served as a Navy nurse aboard the USS Sanctuary in 1969 in Vietnam.

Ellen Duvall, who served as a Navy nurse, says “there’s something about going on the Honor Flight that they’re with others and there’s a comradeship that develops.” (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“I think there’s something about going on the Honor Flight that they’re with others and there’s a comradeship that develops,” the Springfield vet says. “Even if they don’t chat a lot with people, they know they’re surrounded by primarily people who were Vietnam vets that had been through what they had, had seen much of what they had seen and coming home had never really had a follow-up community together to chat or support each other…”

Brent Slane led the videography/photography team as OPT’s documentary producer during the Aug. 23 trip.

“It’s more than just a trip to see monuments,” Slane says. “The stories that these guys share is the importance of what the mission is all about.

“You can say ‘We’re taking a group of veterans to see the memorials.’ That doesn’t resonate with people,” he says. “You’ve got to know why. It’s important for these guys and gals to get a sense of recognition, closure, the healing that goes into what’s actually going on that a lot of us who have never served don’t understand.”

Brent Slane is a Producer at Ozarks Public Television and also produced the locally-produced history documentary “In Gratitude: Honor Flight of the Ozarks.” (Photo by Kathleen O'Dell)

Slane adds, “Certainly for Ross (Giacomo), he knew this was his last trip… and he made peace with it.”

A day of memorable moments

Each Honor Flight begins with “training day” 10 days earlier so veterans and guardians know what to expect. On trip day as the plane pulled away at 5:30 a.m., the Springfield National Airport Fire Department conducted a water cannon salute — spraying a bridge of water over the aircraft as it headed to the runway. The vets’ plane received the same salute arriving at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Honor Flight of the Ozarks at the Springfield-Branson National Airport. (Photo provided by the Office of Congressman Eric Burlison)

As chatter builds among old vets making new friends, Flight Commander David Snider always takes a moment for a somber reminder of what it means to be a member of their military branch. “How every one of us in the room — every veteran — we started off by raising our hand. Whether they’re a veteran on the airplane or serving as a guardian or a staff member, I ask them to stand and reaffirm their oath, and we all raise our hand.”

Snider adds, “You want to see something that is moving — you watch these veterans that are in wheelchairs stand up and raise their hand. That gets you.”

Once in D.C. they boarded buses for each of the memorials — World War II, Lincoln Memorial, memorials for the Vietnam and Korean War; the Air Force Memorial and Iwo Jima Memorial.

Veterans, guardians and others gather during the Honor Flight on August 23, 2023. (Photo: Ozarks Public Television)

During their final stop at Arlington National Cemetery, the veterans had front-row seating for the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They watched in silence as a relief sentinel stoically strode past in a practiced, precise heel-click, heel-click cadence.

And then, almost inaudible over the sentinel’s footfall: an intentional heel scrape to signify he was recognizing the veterans gathered there.

“That was huge to these guys to be recognized that way,” Slane recalls. “It’s so minute, but it speaks volumes.”

Honor Flight of the Ozarks at the World War II Memorial. (Photo provided by the Office of Congressman Eric Burlison)

Slane is eager for viewers to take in what he did when the documentary airs.

“What really sunk into me is that these guys and gals had not experienced the recognition that they were getting. It was very cathartic for them in many ways,” he says.

“Whenever you hear and feel and see the tears, it makes you aware of what the importance of telling their story really is.”

Kathleen O'Dell

Kathleen O'Dell is a veteran journalist who has covered health care, business, education and investigative pieces throughout her career. She's a St. Louis native and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In addition to working for a Texas newspaper, she was on the first staff of USA Today in Washington, D.C., and spent most of her newspaper career at the Springfield News-Leader. More by Kathleen O'Dell