WEST PALM BEACH -- When helicopter gunner David Coursen returned from Vietnam in 1971, he was flown from California to New Jersey, then given a bus ticket to his hometown of Bethlehem, Pa.
He walked the final mile home from the bus station.
“They told him not to wear his uniform because there was so much dissension over the war,’’ said his wife, Eileen.
In the months before he came home, Eileen said, she would go to the local airport every other day, not knowing if he’d been discharged or was still overseas. “I would just sit in the airport and hope he was one of the people I’d see walking off the planes,’’ she recalled.
On Saturday, Eileen Coursen went to Palm Beach International Airport and finally watched her husband come home to a hero’s welcome. He came home with 58 other Vietnam War veterans, 16 Korean War vets and seven World War II vets, from an Honor Flight to Washington D.C.
Honor Flights in the past have mostly paid tribute to World War II and Korean War vets. Sponsored by the nonprofit Southeast Florida Honor Flight based in Stuart, Saturday’s trip was the first one made up predominantly of Vietnam War vets.
Unlike the often ugly or nonexistent receptions they received nearly 50 years ago after serving in a deeply unpopular war, they were welcomed back to PBIA by more than 500 people, many waving American flags and cheering “USA” as the veterans gingerly marched in a procession led by the The Palm Beach Pipes and Drums band.
“For both of us, this is a homecoming that is 47 years overdue,’’ Eileen Coursen said.
Among the veterans on Saturday’s trip were soldiers who fought in the D-Day invasion, the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Hue. There was a World War II vet who was shot and captured at the Battle of the Bulge, taken as a POW, and escaped after four and a half months.
Their Honor Flight started at 4:30 a.m. at PBIA where a chartered American Airlines Airbus flew the vets to Washington D.C. There, the group boarded four police-escorted motor coaches for visits to the Air Force Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery for the Changing of the Guard ceremony, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also widely known as "The Wall."
The big finale was the emotional welcome home at PBIA, where strangers reached to shake the hands of Vietnam vets and thank them for their service.
Each Honor Flight vet was accompanied by a chaperone. Coursen was joined by his son, Zach, whose was given his middle name — “Michael” — in honor of a soldier with the same name who died in David Coursen’s arms after being shot in Vietnam.
Standing next to Eileen Coursen, as she waited for the return flight Saturday night, was Loretta Butts of Stuart. Her husband, James Butts, is also a Vietnam War vet who took the Honor Flight.
The two women met for the first time in the packed concourse and learned their husbands share something else in common — both suffered from PTSD and both still suffer symptoms from being exposed to Agent Orange.
Unlike David Coursen, who volunteered to serve in Vietnam, Butts was drafted in 1966.
“He was a grunt, on the ground, in the jungle. He was point man,’’ Loretta Butts said, referring to a term that describes the soldier who assumes the first and most exposed position.
She met her husband in central Florida a few months after he returned from the war. She said he never talked much about Vietnam. He worked in construction and put in longer hours than he needed to, she said, so he could have a better chance of falling asleep instead of reliving the war in his head.
“He would fight in the war every night in his sleep,’’ Loretta said. “He’d kick and punch and yell out. He would wake up and do this’’ — she grabbed a reporter’s shoulder — “and say, ‘I think someone’s out there.’’’
She held back tears as she described what the Honor Flight meant to her husband.
“It’s sad to see what happened to Vietnam veterans when they came back. The Vietnam War was instant in the public’s eyes. It was the first TV war and the public would see images on TV and brand these guys as baby killers. People would judge him,’’ she said.
Butts looked out at the festive scene on the concourse, where throngs of people waved tiny American flags and wore T-shirts with the words “Proud Son of a Vietnam Vet.”
“This,’’ she said, “is the welcome home he never got 50 years ago.’’
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.