WASHINGTON -- They deployed from Phoenix at 07:00 Saturday morning. Their mission: Find the enemy inside.
They are the newest members of Operation Freedom Bird, a nonprofit organization focused solely on U.S. service men and women who have seen the worst during military combat.
When they left for Washington, they carried a heavy rucksack filled with tricks to deflect and avoid detection. It was psychological counselors Annette Hill-Puccia and Joe Little's jobs to get the men and women to look at what's inside.
"A lot of ‘Why,' is in (the rucksack) and ‘What do I do now?' " Hill-Puccia said. "You know questions, terror, anger, rage, a sense of loss, ‘Who am I?' A loss of identity is in that bag."
For Lake Havasu's Joe DiGiacomo, it's mainly guilt that has followed him since he piloted swift boats in Vietnam through the late 1960s.
"Just prior to the Tet Offense, I had received notice of supplies coming up the river. There were supposed to be three boats taking off together. We were to be the lead boat," he said during the first group counseling session. "But, our engines wouldn't start, so the other two boats took off."
He took a moment to hold back tears.
"As we were catching up, a rocket hit the lead boat," he continued.
The pilot was killed immediately, DiGiacomo said.
"He was one of the first friends I made over there. He was the one who took me under his wing."
DiGiacamo left the service and eventually joined the Yavapai County Sheriff's department. Everything seemed normal until 1999, when hidden emotions were triggered as he and eight other deputies pulled over a suspected car thief.
"About 57 shots were fired in a span of two to three minutes," he said. "My whole world changed. I was seeing the boats and thrown right back into Vietnam."
He said chest pains, panic attacks and feelings of paranoia grew and forced him to retire from a job he loved.
"It wasn't until I was seen by a VA center psychologist that we identified I had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)."
Throughout the weekend, similar stories spilled out as the 24 veterans felt accepted by their peers. Many had never spoken before about the horrors they witnessed while in combat. Some of those horrors come from as far back as World War II, and as recent as Operation Enduring Freedom.
The first night in Washington, the vets took a drive to the Vietnam Memorial.
"A lot of stuff happens over here," Little told them as they stood in a solemn circle. "Don't push it down. Be open to cry," he said.
It was dark, and the temperature outside was quickly dropping to the mid-30s. But when World War II vet Bob Emmett touched the wall, it was warm to the touch. He didn't know any of the 58,000 or more Vietnam veterans'names that were on the wall, but it still moved him to tears.
Younger veterans from Vietnam and later conflicts look up to Emmett. He is one of the remaining few soldiers from the famed Merrill's Marauders, who fought behind enemy lines near China.
Looking at the names on the wall and younger vets on the journey he is among friends. "These men are my buddies. They're all my buddies," he said. The 88-year old has quickly become the group's honorary leader, first by showing up and then opening up.
He was the first among the group to let the tears flow after 70 years of survivor's guilt.
"They figure if it wasn't for me, they couldn't be here or couldn't fight," he said, "but, I couldn't save (the Vietnam vets) or 2,400 of my guys (in Myanmar, then known as Burma, in May of 1944)."
For Vietnam veteran Wayne Fulton it's a second journey to the wall.
"I thought this year would be easier," he said, as he found his best friend James R. West's name etched on the wall. "Jimmy and I were signing up for the military together, but I didn't pass my English class that year," which held up his deployment.
West died in combat a short time later. "And I just keep asking myself if it would have been any different if we'd gone together."
For the next three days, the vets visited the wall, their grief gradually subsiding as they pulled tokens and mementos from their rucksacks and left them at the wall.
When OFB began in 1988, it focused solely on combat vets from Vietnam. The title derived from the nickname "Freedom Bird," the final aircraft closing a tour.
Vietnam veteran Pat Lynch founded OFB.
"I came home after the Army and felt, 'That's it?' " Lynch said.
He was flying for then-America West Airlines around the same time the Vietnam Wall Memorial was built in Washington.
"I wanted to see the wall and I didn't want to go alone," he said. He called Mike Conway, president of the airline. "He said, 'When do you want to do it?' " Lynch said.
The first flight took off for the nation's capital, two days before Veterans Day in 1988 with 50 combat members from the Phoenix Veterans Center. The mission has not failed for the past 26 years, Lynch said.
"The difference this year is we opened up the journey to combat vets from all conflicts," Lynch said.
Expanding the need
OFB is the only organization of its kind in the country and it almost did not happen this year as it underwent restructuring to include more veterans from all conflicts.
"I wanted to find as many people as possible that were eligible for this journey," said board President Patrick Ziegert. They widened the requirements for qualifying candidates.
"This year we opened our process for identifying candidates to go beyond the vet centers," said Ziegert. "Our goal is to include candidates from all health services including military, government and community providers."
The other goal, he said, was to "establish better communication between those providers." Right now military members see military doctors, while vets must go to the VA or a private doctor.
With cooperation, Ziegert hoped to simplify the process so that,"we can create a no wrong person, no wrong door approach."
As with anything related to government, progress can move at a glacial pace, especially when change is at hand. In OFB's case, it fell short thousands of dollars for the journey this year.
Lynch and Ziegert discussed skipping the journey, but grass-roots donations saved the day, Ziegert said. They had enough to bring 30 members to Washington and trial- run the new inclusive approach.
As the 24 vets returned home Tuesday night, the new approach appeared to have worked. Their tightly folded arms and silence on Saturday gave way to hugs and long bouts of laughter.
Their journey had come full circle as the Southwest Freedom jet pulled into Sky Harbor. Inside, a huge crowd had gathered to welcome them home. At a nearby hangar, families waited to wrap their arms around the returning heroes without a rucksack in the way.
To support or learn more about Operation Freedom Bird, click here.
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