Stephanie McKinney anticipated a special day as she rode with her father from Houston to Springfield for the Honor Flight of the Ozarks. What she didn’t realize was the significance.
“My dad had been quiet the entire trip,” Stephanie recalled. “He asked me if I knew the significance of Oct. 20, and I didn’t. He had tears in his eyes and said it marked 49 years to the day he touched down in Vietnam.”
Jerry Snyder was 20 years old in 1966 when he entered the war. He lost two classmates who were close friends, four men from his unit were killed and he was significantly wounded six months into his tour. He returned home to slurs and insults.
Now 69, Snyder was about to receive the long overdue gratitude and appreciation for his service to his country that was missing 49 years earlier.
“Everything came full circle,” Stephanie said. “It changed something in my dad.”
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Jerry clearly remembers the blast of hot air hitting his face as he landed in Vietnam on Oct. 20, 1966. The humidity was awful. But he was prepared for the conditions after training in Louisiana.
He was halfway through his one-year tour on Feb. 24, 1967. It was the third day of Operation Junction City. Around 7 a.m., he was a passenger in a Jeep riding through the jungle along the Cambodian border.
“It was real quiet,” Jerry recalled. “I knew something was up, so I had my M-16 locked and loaded. What they would do was hit us and run back into Cambodia.
“It was an ambush. The truck in front of us and my vehicle got hit with rocket-propelled grenades. I remember I shot every round I had, then used my rifle for a crutch to get to my buddy who had lost his leg.”
Jerry was shot in the legs. He also had severe facial and arm burns.
But he survived. So did his partner, who now lives in Conway, Ark. He and Jerry still speak at least once a year.
Many were not as fortunate.
Jerry’s classmate, James Richardson, was killed in Vietnam. Both were 1965 Houston High School graduates. Terry Huff, who graduated one year later, died a few months after Jerry was out of the Army.
Four members of Jerry’s 11th Calvary also paid the ultimate sacrifice. In all, nearly 60,000 service members from the United States lost their lives in the war.
Growing up, Stephanie said her dad always spoke matter-of-factly when sharing about Vietnam.
“Except for tactical maneuvers and things you could find in a history book, my dad had never shared with me his perspective –– how he felt, what he saw and how they treated him when he came home,” she said. “He told me for years it wasn’t a popular thing to share that he was a Vietnam veteran. He felt like he left part of himself in Vietnam.”
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It was 2 a.m. when Stephanie and Jerry left Houston for Springfield. The honor flight was Stephanie’s idea. Jerry had been to the nation’s capitol four or five times since the war but never visited the Vietnam memorial. He said he wasn’t ready.
At the Springfield-Branson National Airport, they were joined by 74 other war veterans and their guardians. It was the fifth honor flight from the Ozarks –– one of 132 established hubs in the Honor Flight Network –– and for the first time included female veterans.
The reception at the airport was surprisingly strong for the wee hours of the morning, but nothing like what was waiting in D.C.
Upon landing at Dulles International Airport, the entourage of veterans was met by a sea of red-and-white clad well-wishers. Among them were Girl Scouts, homeschool mothers, fellow veterans and even ladies who had lost their husbands in Vietnam.
“It was magnificent,” Jerry said. “There were little kids, military people and frail little grandpas and grandmas. They all wanted to hug me and kiss me –– and two of them did. I told Stephanie that if I had known D.C. would be like that, I would have been back sooner.”
One particular greeting stood out to Stephanie.
“One woman grabbed my dad and said, ‘Welcome home, solider,” she said. “That was my first emotional moment. I lost it.
“My dad grinned. He’s a tough, old veteran. He looked at me and said, ‘Oh sis, it’s going to be a long day for you.’”
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The Honor Flight gives priority to World War II, Korean, Vietnam and terminally ill veterans. The men and women are flown to view their memorials at no cost.
Escorted by police officers on all four sides of their charter buses, Jerry’s group began its journey at the World War II Memorial. Stops would also include the Korean War Memorial, Marine Corps Memorial and Arlington Cemetery.
The one Jerry and Stephanie were most anticipating was the Vietnam War Memorial. As her dad approached the structure, Stephanie said his demeanor changed.
“We got up to the wall and I saw a totally different person,” she said. “He had this resolve, squared his shoulders back and his pace sped up.”
Built in 1982, the memorial honors 58,260 veterans who died in combat. They are arranged in chronological order and alphabetized within each day.
“Three or four times he put his hand up to touch it but couldn’t,” Stephanie said. “He put his hand out and touched the wall, then put both of his hands on his face and stood there without saying a word. He grabbed me and squeezed my arm as hard as he could squeeze it.”
After covering the 247-foot structure, Jerry asked his daughter to retrieve rubbings of two names from the wall: James Richardson and Terry Huff. While she did, Jerry sat by himself nearby.
Two days before the trip, Stephanie wrote a poem about a veteran’s encounter with the memorial. The piece –– “The other side of the wall” –– was distributed to those on the trip and will be given to future veterans through an education center.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s a humbling experience,” Jerry said. “Everyone says you get closure, but if you’ve been to Vietnam and seen all of that, you don’t ever really get closure.”
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The Springfield airport was a much different scene when Jerry and Stephanie returned that night. There was a band, saluting members of the local Junior ROTC and Honor Guard and large groups of family members.
Jerry first spotted his grandson, Landon Holland, standing on a chair and holding a sign that read, “Welcome home.”
“Dad looks at me and starts crying,” Stephanie said. “He said, ‘We’re home.’ My dad is a man of few words, but those words were loaded with so much.”
Stephanie said the trip changed her dad. On the return flight to Springfield, he began telling stories and experiences that he had never shared.
His reception returning home in 2015 was much different than 1967, when Vietnam veterans were spit on and called “baby killers.” This time he was thanked for his service and appropriately viewed as a hero.
“To see him have so much pride –– it was like I wasn’t looking at my dad, but a young man who was 20 years old again,” Stephanie said. “It was so great to finally see him get a welcome home and some sort of closure. There’s no way to put a bow on something as horrific as war. But he at least now felt gratitude and appreciation from others.”
Awaiting Jerry at the airport upon his return home were his wife, Sondra, who was 19 when he was deployed and his other daughter, Salina. Stephanie’s husband, Ryan, and both of Salina’s children, Tayler and Landon, were also there to greet him.
Since the trip, Stephanie said her father continues to open up and share things he had bottled up for nearly 50 years.
“He came out of his shell. You could tell he felt appreciated,” she said. “He has said in the days since, ‘That was quite a welcome home.’”