A local Vietnam War veteran saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for the first time this past weekend as part of a program that allows veterans to see national memorials.
Dennis Crego, of Urbana, was chosen to participate in a trip to Washington, D.C. organized by Honor Flight Dayton on Saturday.
According to the organization’s website, Honor Flight Dayton’s mission is to take World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans and terminally-ill veterans of any armed conflict to see their national memorials in Washington D.C. These trips are provided at no cost to all qualified veterans and includes airfare, bus transportation and other expenses.
Crego was at a Veterans Day event at his granddaughter’s middle school a year ago when he registered to participate in an Honor Flight. He was informed on Nov. 1 that he was chosen to go on the trip.
“It was so rewarding,” Crego said of the trip. “To be able to go on this was such a blessing and I felt so privileged to be able to go on this and it was a great honor.”
Crego graduated from Urbana High School in 1966 and married his wife, Marcella, in July of the same year. On Oct. 16, 1966, he was drafted by the United States Army.
“At that time when you’re 18 you had to register for the draft and I knew it was a matter of time when I’d be getting drafted. I didn’t know when,” Crego said. “Then the letter came three months after I was married…it came quicker than I thought.”
At 19 years old, Crego went to basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia and advanced infantry training at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland before receiving orders to go overseas. A member of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery, Crego served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 during the Tet Offensive.
“It made me grow up and learn responsibility; it makes a man out of you real quick,” Crego said about transitioning to the Army. “I’m just kid out of high school and really didn’t know a whole lot, but it did teach me a lot of discipline and to respect other people.”
Crego said his unit had various jobs including unloading ammo and cleaning guns. During his last six months in Vietnam, Crego was selected as the colonel’s driver.
“Of course when you’re away from your family you miss them a great deal and back then we didn’t have the stuff you have now with the electronic media, so when we get a letter sometimes it’d be a week before you get them,” Crego said. “That was the thing that kept us together was getting mail from home, especially overseas.”
“It was kind of a scary experience because you don’t know what to expect. Met a lot of friends over there, lost a few.”
After serving in Vietnam, Crego was met with protests when he returned home.
“When I first got back to Fort Lewis, Washington, from overseas when we landed there were some protesters out there with signs,” Crego said. “That’s going to happen but when you see that kind of stuff after spending a year over in combat and to come home to see your own people standing there it just kind of destroys your morale a little bit. It took a lot of years for this country to heal over that because I think it was more of a political war than what you’d consider World War I and II.”
Crego said the public’s response and respect for military has changed for the positive since then.
He said participating in the trip last Saturday was a humbling experience as he and other veterans were treated like royalty. Veterans from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars participated in the recent trip.
The veterans departed from Dayton International Airport early Saturday morning and arrived to a rousing reception in Washington, D.C.
“When we went into the airport there were people lined up on both sides greeting us, a little band was playing, chills were running down my spine,” Crego said. “Just the support they had for the veterans there it was really a warming experience.”
As the veterans traveled on four buses throughout the day, police escorted them from one place to another.
Prior to participating in the Honor Flight, Crego said, he never had seen the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When he got the opportunity to see the memorial, Crego said the first thing he thought of was the people who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country and families.
“A friend of mine was killed (in Vietnam) and I scratched off his name on the wall when I was there,” Crego said. “That was what motivated me to go there to see it because if I hadn’t done it (through the Honor Flight) I probably would’ve never got a chance to go.”
The veterans received another round of support when they returned to Dayton around 11 p.m. Saturday. Crego said they were greeted by civilians and family members.
As the country observes Veterans Days, Crego said he hopes people will recognize service people the way they should be.
“I don’t want them to take them for granted,” Crego said. “They give up a lot to serve their country. I’m proud to be an American and was able to serve my country when they called for me.”
Nick Walton can be reached at 937-652-1331 Ext. 1777 or on Twitter @UDCWalton.