Vietnam Veteran Alvin Woods Reflects on His Service After Taking Honor Flight to Washington D.C. - 27 East

Vietnam Veteran Alvin Woods Reflects on His Service After Taking Honor Flight to Washington D.C.

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North Sea resident and Vietnam veteran Alvin Woods in Washington DC on April 29 as part of Honor Flight Long Island.

North Sea resident and Vietnam veteran Alvin Woods in Washington DC on April 29 as part of Honor Flight Long Island.

North Sea resident and Vietnam veteran Alvin Woods in Washington DC on April 29 as part of Honor Flight Long Island.

North Sea resident and Vietnam veteran Alvin Woods in Washington DC on April 29 as part of Honor Flight Long Island.

North Sea resident and Vietnam veteran Alvin Woods in Washington DC on April 29 as part of Honor Flight Long Island.

North Sea resident and Vietnam veteran Alvin Woods in Washington DC on April 29 as part of Honor Flight Long Island.

authorCailin Riley on May 26, 2023

When Alvin Woods returned home on a late flight from Baltimore into Islip’s MacArthur Airport on April 29, he was tired but buoyed by the gratifying experience of joining more than 40 other military veterans on a one-day trip to Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight Long Island.

Founded in 2007 by East Hampton resident Chris Cosich, who died in 2014, the nonprofit flies military veterans, free of charge, every year to the nation’s capital to visit monuments to the wars they served in.

It was an amazing day for Woods, an 81-year-old Vietnam veteran who lives in North Sea. He’d been to Washington many times in the past but had never visited the famous landmarks, like the Lincoln Memorial or the Vietnam War Memorial, and he said it was an incredibly moving experience.

But one of the most meaningful and emotional moments came, unexpectedly, on the final leg of the journey, when Woods and the rest of the veterans who had made the trip walked through the airport after the flight home.

To their surprise, they were greeted by an enormous crowd of family members, servicemen and servicewomen, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and even a bagpipe band, welcoming them home with music, cheers and encouragement.

It was an overwhelming moment for Woods and the rest of the veterans who made the trip, and particularly poignant for those who had done tours in Vietnam.

For them, it was the kind of welcome home reception they had been denied for nearly 60 years, when the deep unpopularity of the war and criticism of the USA’s involvement led to veterans being shunned, and treated with disrespect and even hostility.

Earlier this week, while sitting in the living room of his home in North Sea, Woods spoke about that moment, and what it felt like to, finally, receive the kind of hero’s welcome military veterans deserve.

He described walking through the middle of a sea of people, gathered on either side of the veterans, cheering, clapping and honoring them, saying it was hard to put into words.

“I was probably getting ready to cry, that’s how moving it was,” he said.

Like many Vietnam War veterans, Woods spent years, decades even, avoiding the topic when it came to the war and his service.

That instinct did not come from any kind of trauma he endured while serving there. Woods acknowledges that he was lucky, serving at Cam Ranh Bay, where the U.S. Army maintained a command center and hospital unit where wounded soldiers were sent to recover from their injuries.

It was a relatively safe area during the time he was there, and Woods did not serve with anyone who lost his life in Vietnam. He was also relatively unscathed by the racism that many Black servicemen endured during the six-month period bridging 1965 and 1966 when he was there.

“My time there really wasn’t bad compared to a lot of people,” he said.

Still, he felt acutely the sting of what it meant to be a Vietnam War veteran once the war was over.

“You got out of Vietnam, and you didn’t wear your uniform, because people didn’t like you,” he said. “We were despised. And we had nothing to do with it.

“I never tried to get into conversations with people about Vietnam,” Woods added. “Because I knew the feelings people had, so I would rather not, because then you would set me off and I wouldn’t want to say something the wrong way.”

Serving in the military was not something Woods ever set his sights on or envisioned for himself when he was a youngster growing up in Brownsville, outside of Pittsburgh. He moved east to Long Island when he was just 18, drawn to the area because he had a cousin who lived there.

Shortly after moving to the area, Woods received a letter in the mail that he’d been drafted, and was required to report for basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey. It was an adjustment at first, he admitted.

“You’re used to certain things, and then you get off this bus and you have these men cussing you and really hollering and chewing you out. I was a little taken aback. But it wasn’t bad.”

Despite that treatment, Woods said he wasn’t upset by being drafted, and didn’t spend too much time worrying about what the future held for him.

“It was simply something you did, and that was it,” he said. “You made the best of it.”

After basic training at Fort Dix, Woods was sent to Fort Belvoir in Virginia, for a little over a year before being sent to Vietnam.

Army engineers were busy doing construction at Cam Ranh Bay when Woods and his unit arrived there, and they spent their days providing necessary security in the area as buildings, platforms and other infrastructure was being built around them.

“Now they say it’s a resort area,” Woods said, wistfully, as he spoke about his time there decades ago. “It’s a place I would always like to go back to. I think about it.”

While a return trip to Vietnam is unlikely for Woods, he said he’d certainly appreciate heading there by plane, which would be a welcome relief after the long and arduous journey he endured last time, when he embarked for Vietnam by ship from Oakland, California.

Woods settled back to regular life in Southampton after the war was over, working first as a cook and then in landscaping before running heavy equipment doing highway work, and joining a union. He settled down with his wife, Deborah, and three stepchildren. Early last week, one of his two great-grandchildren — his great-grandson, Tavian — played happily in the back yard of his home on a sunny day.

Decades removed from the experience of serving, Woods has a Vietnam Veteran hat that he wears now without trepidation. He acknowledges somewhat conflicting truths that can live alongside each other — he is proud of his time serving in the military, and expresses gratitude to the Northport VA for the medical care he has received there in recent years, including various surgeries. But he also freely shares that the U.S. government’s intentions in being involved in Vietnam were never pure, driven by money and greed.

“You don’t notice it when you’re in the service, but afterward, you come to find out a lot of this stuff that was being buried underneath the rug,” he said.

And he says that while the stigma of having served in Vietnam is not nearly as acute as it was in the years directly after the war, it still exists.

“It’s much easier now, but the stigma is still there,” he said. “Which we, as Americans created that. You also have a lot of veterans who are homeless, and that goes back to the Vietnam War. We have homeless veterans still, but we’re worried about migrants. What about those veterans who are still struggling?”

While the many issues that face military veterans in this country need to be addressed on many fronts, organizations like Honor Flight are doing what they can do give veterans like Woods and many others an opportunity to reconnect with their past, and most importantly to be lauded and appreciated for their service to the country.

Woods said he certainly appreciated it, and was moved by the entire experience. He was able to stand in front of the Vietnam War Memorial for the first time, and witnessed other veterans from the trip trace with their fingers the names of men they’d served alongside who had died.

That’s exactly what the organizers of Honor Flight hope the veterans take away from the experience.

“Much like many Vietnam veterans, Alvin doesn’t say much about the war,” said Bill Donahue, an Honor Flight Long Island Board Member. “But you get him down to the Wall with other veterans to bond with, and he opens up. Honor Flight ends up being a positive, therapeutic experience.”

It was only for a short day, but it was a meaningful one that Woods and the rest of the veterans won’t soon forget.

Woods said he will take with him the memory of seeing the Lincoln Memorial, and contemplating how that was the scene of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech to the masses gathered there many years ago. He said he’ll also remember the way so many children who were visiting the memorials at the same time as his group came up to him and the other veterans to greet them, thank them for their service, and hand them small American flags.

“We were all strangers to them,” Woods said. “But they all came up to us.”

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