Tama County Vietnam Veterans (from left to right) Thomas Podhajsy, Eugene Brown, and David Podhajsy pictured together on May 11, in Washington, D.C. while visiting the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial as part of the 27th Cedar Valley Honor Flight out of Waterloo. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial which includes the phrase ‘Uncommon Value Was A Common Virtue’ pictured on Wednesday, May 11. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
Vietnam Veterans, brothers Thomas (left) and David (right) Podhajsky stand next to the Iowa Pillar at the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. on May 11, 2022. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
Vietnam Veteran Eugene Brown reflects while visiting the World War II Memorial on May 11 in Washington, D.C. -Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
Arlington National Cemetery pictured on Wednesday, May 11, during Eugene Brown, David Podhajsky, and Thomas Podhajsky’s visit with the 27th Cedar Valley Honor Flight. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
Vietnam Veteran Eugene Brown of Tama County speaks about his Army days while visiting Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on May 11, as part of the 27th Cedar Valley Honor Flight. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
Veteran David Podhajsky of Tama County searches for the name of his friend John Slater of Marshalltown while visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. on May 11, as part of the 27th Cedar Valley Honor Flight. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
A Veteran onboard the May 11 return flight of the 27th Cedar Valley Honor Flight is visibly affected as he reads through letters sent to him by local schoolchildren. All the Veterans who were part of the May 11 Honor Flight received a packet of letters written to them both personally and generally roughly halfway through the flight from D.C. to Waterloo. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
Vietnam Veteran Thomas Podhajsky of Garwin (right) and his son/chaperone Staff Sergeant Byron Podhajsky (left) experience a wave of emotions as they arrive back at the Waterloo Airport on May 11 as part of the 27th Sullivan Hartogh Davis Cedar Valley Honor Flight. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
Vietnam Veteran Eugene Brown of rural Traer (seated) and his chaperone Cindy Wagner (waving) are greeted by the community as they arrive back at the Waterloo Airport on May 11, in the celebratory conclusion to the 27th Sullivan Hartogh Davis Cedar Valley Honor Flight. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
Youthful members of the Welcome Home party organized for the 27th Sullivan Hartogh Davis Cedar Valley Honor Flight pictured at the Waterloo Airport late in the evening on May 11. -Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker
For a trio of Tama County Vietnam Veterans, Wednesday, May 11, will certainly remain in their hearts and minds as a day of both joy and somber reflection – the day each man visited Washington, D.C. for both the very first time and as a member of the 27th Sullivan Hartogh Davis Cedar Valley Honor Flight out of Waterloo.
The morning of May 11 began early for Thomas Podhajsky of Garwin, his older brother David Podhajsky of rural Clutier, and Eugene Brown of rural Traer as all three made their way from Tama County to the Waterloo Municipal Airport for a 6:30 a.m. departure – along with more than 80 other military Veterans from Black Hawk, Bremer, and Grundy counties.
The vast majority of Veterans on the flight that day were from the Vietnam War era in addition to about a dozen Veterans who served in the Korean War and one World War II Army Veteran – retired Major General Evan ‘Curly’ Hultman of Waterloo.
For Brown and the Podhajskys the decision to apply to go on an honor flight was made individually – none of the men, not even the Podhajsky brothers, made the decision in conjunction with one another despite all three being friends.
David Podhajsky at age 80, is the eldest of the trio having graduated from Clutier in 1960 – the last class before consolidation with Traer – after which he enlisted in the Navy, serving four years as a machinist in the engine room on the USS Salamoni.
“It was hot,” David said when asked to describe his work. “Over 120 degrees down there. Those valves were so hot you had to put gloves on your hands.”
Unlike his older brother, Thomas Podhajsky, 77, a 1963 Traer graduate, was drafted into service with the Army in 1965. He served two years overseas as an admitting and discharge clerk in a medical unit.
David described Thomas’ role as similar to the work of the character Radar O’Reilly from the hit television series M*A*S*H* which David admitted was ironic considering Radar’s character was also from Iowa.
“That first night,” Thomas recalled of being in Vietnam, “it rained – water all over. We started building trenches.”
At 75, Eugene Brown is the youngest of the trio. Brown graduated from Hudson in 1965 before enlisting in the Army, serving from 1966 to 1969.
“I took my bayonet training in a creek,” Brown recalled of his basic training days. “We were told we could either practice bayonets in the sun or get your boots wet and go to the river. We went to the river.”
As the Podhajsky brothers stood in line the morning of May 11 in the Waterloo Airport waiting to board their flight to D.C. – alongside Thomas’ guardian for the trip, his son Staff Sergeant Byron Podhajsky (David’s chaperone, daughter Lori Speck became ill the evening before the flight and heartbreakingly had to miss) – the brothers began to reminiscence about the letters their mother Lois Podhajsky sent them while stationed overseas, letters that clearly illustrated her sense of humor.
“She wrote a letter one time,” David said, “[that said] ‘the stagecoach is late, the mail didn’t get here on time,’” after which both Podhajskys laughed uproariously, recalling how being from Iowa was like being from a wild frontier of sorts to their fellow service members.
“When trying to call back home to Ma, I had trouble,” Thomas admitted of Iowa’s rural telephone system. ‘Just get hold of Clutier’ he said he’d tell the telephone operator, hoping if he at least connected that far the rest would fall into place.
In addition to David and Thomas, there is a third Podhajsky brother who served in Vietnam – their baby brother Michael who, like his eldest sibling, enlisted in the Navy in 1966.
More than once, the late Lois Podhajsky had more than one son serving in Vietnam.
Upon arriving in D.C., the day passed quickly for the Veterans who were divided into three groups by colors – red, white, and blue.
Despite landing late and losing roughly two hours from the planned itinerary, the 27th Cedar Valley Honor Flight managed to visit the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery during the Changing of the Guard, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, and lastly the U.S. Air Force Memorial.
By far the most anticipated visit of the day for the trio from Tama County was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where the Podhajsky brothers located the name of David’s friend Second Lieutenant John Edward Slater of Marshalltown who died on December 15, 1968, while serving in Quang Nam with the Marine Corps.
The brothers also searched for – and found – the name of their relative, Air Force Captain Norbert Albert Podhajsky of Tama who died on November 29, 1970, while on a “routine milk run” as a crewman. Podhajsky’s flight crashed into a mountain ridge in poor weather 14 miles outside Cam Rahn Bay. Of the 44 people on board the aircraft, only two survived.
David, with the help of a National Park Service volunteer, made a rubbing of both Veterans’ names to take back home to Iowa.
The memorials clearly had an effect on the men from Tama County. The normally extroverted David became very quiet while riding on the bus between stops – often looking out the window in what appeared to be reflective silence.
His younger brother Thomas – the less talkative of the two Podhajskys, but just as warm and kind – spent a lot of his time at the memorials on his own with just his son Byron for company, seemingly taking it all in as best a person could who was once upon a time drafted into war without any choice.
For Brown – accompanied by his chaperone Cynthia Wagner, a Waterloo Honor Flight board member – each visit seemed to provide him the opportunity to make more friends among the Veterans in his group.
Following the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Brown – who injured his knee splitting wood just days before the trip to D.C. – took a break in his wheelchair beside the endless sea of white gravestones and began recalling his Navy days to a fellow Veteran.
“Private Eugene G. Brown, RA16, 861167, sir!” Brown rattled off to his new friend several times as he remembered verbatim what it took during basic training to be allowed to eat. “It’s pounded right in there.”
“Same here,” his fellow Veteran replied, touching his temple. “Right here.”
As the day waned – a day full of beauty featuring blue skies dotted with puffs of white clouds, a light breeze, and comfortable temperatures free of the Iowa humidity the Veterans’ loved ones were experiencing back home – the Telegraph asked David if he and his brother Thomas ever talk about their shared experiences in Vietnam.
David replied by shaking his head and mouthing no.
“He never talks about it,” David said of his younger brother. “He was in a medical unit – he saw all that blood.”
Earlier in the day ahead of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, David touched on the poor treatment Vietnam Veterans received upon arriving back home on American soil – a shameful period in our country’s history wherein after having lived through a trauma few can put into words even today, Vietnam Veterans were forced to undergo even more of it at the hands of their fellow Americans.
“That was the big stickler,” David said. “[Vietnam Veterans] were shunned because we were in the war … [we] had to practically sneak home.
It is that treatment that perhaps makes the ‘Welcome Home’ party awaiting the 27th Cedar Valley Honor Flight late in the evening on May 11 so terribly moving for those of us in the press pool who had the privilege of accompanying the Veterans on their journey to D.C.
Although the welcome that night – complete with a live big band, hundreds of American flags, and scores of cheering Iowans – can never fully remedy the hurt that was inflicted on those who served in Vietnam when they came home all those years ago, it was plain to see on many of their faces – including the faces of Eugene Brown, David Podhajsky, and Thomas Podhajsky – they were finally getting a Hero’s Welcome.
If you know a Veteran living in Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, north Tama, or Grundy counties who would like to go on the next honor flight, there is still room. Encourage them to apply at: https://tinyurl.com/2p9f5xyp