by Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma
California National Guard Public Affairs
Nov. 9, 2022
SAN DIEGO – The first weekend on any given month for a National Guard Soldier usually means reporting to your armory and spending the next 48 hours on duty.
For U.S. Army Sgt. Sean Arroyo, with the California Army National Guard’s 315th Vertical Engineer Company based in Moreno Valley, November's drill was anything but that.
Instead of donning his OCPs, Arroyo packed his civilian suitcase and jumped on a flight to Washington D.C. for a very special mission: accompany his grandfather, retired Army Spc. Bob Martinez and Vietnam veteran along with 94 other vets on an Honor Flight from San Diego to the nation’s capital. The Honor Flight San Diego chapter paid for all of the expenses to honor the veterans.
“It’s just an emotional experience,” said Arroyo of being his grandfather’s “Guardian” for the flight. “Honestly, to see all these vets that come back and to hear their stories, they suffered, they went through a lot worse than what we went through and look how strong they are now,” he said.
“Honestly, to see all these vets that come back and to hear their stories, they suffered, they went through a lot worse than what we went through and look how strong they are now.”
Arroyo is exactly right. These men were not given the hero's welcome that accompanies modern day Soldiers when they return from their deployment overseas. Instead, they were spit on, frowned upon and basically shunned by the mainstream due to the unpopular conflict.
This weekend changed all of that as all the Vietnam Vets – all 95 onboard were a Bronze Star with Valor, Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star and Air Medal recipients – were given a welcome home like no other. Salutes, cheers, banners, crowds cheering, marching bands and current service members shaking their hands wherever they went.
“It really makes me feel good that people now actually acknowledge us for what we did when we did it,” said Martinez.
It was also a time for him to reconnect with other veterans who were never given the chance to talk about what they went through collectively and to not have any fears of adverse reactions from a chapter of American history that many would like to forget.
“To be able to share my story with them, and them sharing with me. I have met a couple of veterans who had a similar situation to me, other men with aviation roots, they were in helicopters and in fixed wings,” he said.
Martinez was a crew chief on the Caribou cargo/troop carrying aircraft. He was awarded the Air Medal for flying for more than 100 hours in combat, delivering supplies and moving troops across the battlefield.
“I am proud of what I did, very proud to have served," said Martinez, “It was a job. I really didn’t think that much about it, just out there to do what we had to do,” he said.
Also onboard the flight was retired Command Sgt. Major Michael Syzdek, a Purple Heart recipient who served in the California Army National Guard for decades after his active-duty tour to Vietnam
“To meet other veterans from different military occupational skills and did different things over there, to be able to share this wonderful experience,” he said, “it’s been just amazing.”
Syzdek served in several senior non-commissioned officer positions in the Cal Guard to include the 3-185th Armor Battalion, 4-160th Infantry Battalion and the 1-18th Cavalry Regiment.
In Vietnam, Syzdek served as an infantry Soldier in the 173rd Airborne Brigade as an M-60 gunner and spent 12 months in combat.
While in D.C., the Vietnam Vets were able to visit all of the landmarks and monuments to include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery, the Air Force and Marine memorials, the World War II and Korean War Memorials.
“You know, I have never been to D.C. and to see these monuments, it’s breath-taking. To see the size and scope and to see Arlington and to see how well it is maintained with the rolling green hills and tombstones, the trees changing color. It just makes me 100-percent convinced that the sacrifice that everybody in every war has made in the United States has been worth it," said Syzdek.
The most moving observation, however, was when the veterans visited the landmark that represented the conflict they were involved with, the Vietnam War Memorial. Many took the time to etch on a special piece of paper, the names of buddies who never returned home.
“It’s the only thing that you get to hold on to,” said the retired Command Sgt. Major. “It was worth it to go through all the misery and sacrifice you went through,” he said.
The veterans and their guardians returned to California the next day as they were greeted by hundreds at the San Diego International Airport, perhaps the biggest and loudest event at the end of this historic journey, all with smiling faces and a warm hug and hand-shake, with one simple message from the heart: welcome home!
“Just to see all these people who are not veterans, thousands of people with their kids, it made me feel real good to see that,” said Syzdek.