Monday, November 7, 2011

Face of Veterans Day

November 11th, Veterans Day, is set aside to honor all those who served honorably in the military - in wartime or peacetime.  Veterans Day is an opportunity to acknowledge veteran's contributions to our national security. This is a day for expression of appreciation and underscores the fact that all those who served - not only those who died - have sacrificed and done their duty.

It is important that we say "Thank you" now; especially as many of our veterans grow older.

TOP Vietnam Veterans expresses our gratitude to veterans on Veterans Day.  Today, we pay special tribute to Donald Lonsway, who examples the veterans we honor on this day.  When you think of our veterans, think of special people like Don.  Don traveled with us on a Tour Of Peace and is pictured left at Wunder Beach in Viet Nam--a place and site of personal meaning for Don.

 Don was born, raised and lived his life in southern Maine.  He never had a refrigerator until his junior year in high school, when he saved money from a high school job and bought one for his mother's Christmas present.

Don taught for one year before receiving his draft notice, at the age of twenty-five.  The average age of American soldiers in Vietnam was nineteen; his fellow soldiers would call him "Daddy Don."

Don at Wunder Beach, Vietnam, 1968
Don's military job was as a combat journalist.  Most of his time was spent with infantry units.  He would be with a unit from 5-14 days, return to the LZ (landing zone) for a day to write stories and then go out in the field with another company.

One of Don's favorite Viet Nam memories was playing Santa Clause to Vietnamese children in the village of Phuoch Vinh in 1968.  His "sleigh" was a helicopter.

Don aka "Santa Claus," among disadvantaged Vietnamese children on a Tour Of Peace
As if war were not challenging enough, Don became a casualty of the soldier's feared "Dear John" letter.  "I went to Viet Nam engaged to a person I wanted to marry and live with for the rest of my life.  Nearly nine months after I left home, I received a letter telling me she had fallen in love with someone else."  He never married.

Don returned with a Bronze Star but was not welcomed home with a hero's welcome.  "I was waiting at the airport in Chicago for my flight to Boston when some college kids came up to me and called me names and spit on my uniform."

In addition to returning with a Bronze Star, he also returned home with PTSD.  "I came home a different person.  I wanted so much to talk about the horror I'd seen and experienced.  I just wanted to have someone listen and be willing to help me re-adjust to being 'back in the world'.  That did not happen."

Don resumed his career in education, "Helping kids gave me a reason for living; I gave up thinking I could ever marry and raise my own family a long time ago.  I love kids and my job allowed me to work with them and help them as a counselor and in return I received the feeling of self-worth that I had lost when I returned from Viet Nam."

Upon retirement, after 36 years in education, Don decided to return to Viet Nam with TOP Vietnam Veterans and said, "Returning to Vietnam is the last piece to my healing process."  Don did just that and returned to Viet Nam with TOP.  His trip was powerful and healing.
Don next to lady in white at TOP wheelchair project for physically challenged students.

Don with physically challenged orphans
Don and a school for visually impaired students
On his Tour Of Peace, Don would realize his dream to participate in humanitarian work, especially with schools and children.
Don speaks on behalf of TOP's Scholarship for disadvantaged children

But Don would have one more battle to fight--prostate cancer which Don attributed to Agent Orange exposure.  "I'll fight it as long as I have the strength to do so."  He continued,"I learned to accept death--that I could die at any moment.  I appreciated every day of life after Nam."

Last month, October 23, Don lost his battle to prostate cancer.  He was a veteran and casualty of the Viet Nam War--but never a victim.  He fought the brave fight, "as long as he had the strength" with appreciation of every day of life.  Don was a role model for the next generation and a wonderful face for the veterans we celebrate on Veterans Day.  We are thankful for Donald Lonsway and are grateful for many veterans who have walked the same path he has.  When faced with the prognosis of not being able to return with TOP on our next trip, Don said, "I will be with you in spirit."  On Veterans Day ... and every day ... Don is with us in spirit.  When you think of veterans, remember Don ... and other veterans like him, who are with us only for a little while longer.  Please whisper a word of thanks to him, in spirit.  Here, we share a letter sent by Don, for us all to think about on Veterans Day ... and every day ...:

"I had gone into 7th grade classes to talk about my trip.  As I stood in the hallway, a 7th grade student came up to me and said he had something for me.  I was his guidance counselor when he was in 6th grade.  He was a very shy young man.  He looked at me and said, 'I wrote a poem about you, Mr. Lonsway.'  I took the folded piece of paper from him and asked him if it was okay for me to read it.  I opened the paper and as I read the poem my eyes filled with tears.  I told Josh that it was hard for me to express how much it meant to me.  I reached out and gave him a big hug and thanked him once again.  It is about my trip through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy.  I continue to be moved every time I read it.  Peace, Don."

Mr. Lonsway
He should go back to Vietnam

A man
To Vietnam
Going to get rid of fear
Helping many schools around there

People there too
Here he used to help us
Always he's going to be here
Donald Lonsway
January 10, 1942 - October 23, 2011