Arturo Edwards immigrated to New York from Panama with his cousin in 1964. A year later both were in combat in Vietnam.
Edwards made it home alive. His cousin, Joseph Wallen, didn’t. He was killed in 1966, at age 19.
On Saturday, Edwards, 76, of Farmingdale, gathered with 31 other Vietnam veterans at the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale to recall a June trip they took to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., where Edwards touched Wallen’s name, which is engraved on the black granite wall.
“It was moving, emotional, chilling,” Edwards said after a ceremony honoring the 32, as well as a World War II veteran who went on the same flight from Long Island. “The fact that we grew up together and went to Vietnam together.”
The ceremony was organized by the museum and Honor Flight Long Island, which for 15 years has flown more than 1,800 veterans to Washington to visit the monuments erected in their honor. It is part of a national network of organizations that offers the free flights.
Five other veterans who were on the June 4 trip but weren’t able to attend the ceremony also were honored, as were two late Vietnam veterans whose photos were taken aboard the Southwest Airlines flight from Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma.
Until June 4, all the Long Island flights had been for World War II and Korean War veterans. Vietnam veterans became eligible for the latest trip because many veterans from those wars have died or are unable to fly, said Bill Jones, Honor Flight Long Island president.
It’s especially important to honor Vietnam veterans because they returned to a country deeply divided by the war and they did not receive the parades and other honors that veterans of earlier wars got, he said.
“This was not only to thank them for their service, but to give them a ‘welcome home,’ because they did not receive a welcome home when they returned home during the Vietnam era,” Jones said.
Kenneth Nevor, of Islip, recalled how after he came back from serving in Vietnam with multiple injuries, he was confronted at Suffolk County Community College in Selden with taunts from fellow students such as “how many babies did you kill?”
“It brings a lot of tears to people,” said Nevor of the trip to Washington. “You’re reminded of what happened when you came home, and what they’re doing for you now. Two thousand degrees difference in how much love and respect you were shown.”
In the personalized hardcover books that each flight participant received were photos from their welcome at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where veterans and veterans support groups held “thank you for your service.” and other signs of encouragement.
Ed Kinney, 75, of West Islip, said he grew emotional as he searched the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall for the names of comrades who were killed during the war. He created etchings of the names of four close friends and sent them to their families.
“It was gut-wrenching,” he said of pressing his hands against the wall to etch the names. “It was very difficult. There’s a closeness there. That’s as close as I’ll ever get to them again.”