‘Overpowered and overwhelmed’: Black veterans pay tribute to fallen troops to commemorate Juneteenth

‘Overpowered and overwhelmed’: Black veterans pay tribute to fallen troops to commemorate Juneteenth

Army veteran William Jones was handed a machete and M60 machine gun as the “point man” whose job was to advance first through the jungles of Vietnam to clear a safe path for other combat troops to follow.

“I was the first person to see the action or take a hit. I did not know if I would make it out alive,” said Jones, 76, who stood with his adult daughter, Timika Jones, at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Va., to remember the troops who did not make it home alive.

Jones on Wednesday was part of a group of 27 Black veterans, along with family members serving as chaperones, on the first-ever honor flight to commemorate Juneteenth at war memorials and monuments in the Washington, D.C., area.

Juneteenth is a federal holiday on June 19 to remember the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln issued in 1863 declaring the end of slavery. The federal holiday was first observed in 2021.

Under a blazing hot sun, the veterans participating in the honor flight — many in their 70s and 80s — embarked on a daylong tour of Arlington National Cemetery, the World War II Memorial and Lincoln Memorial, among other sites.

The group traveled on an all-expenses-paid trip courtesy of the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization that has hosted nearly 300,000 veterans on flights and tours of Washington, D.C., since 2005. At 101, World War II veteran Calvin Kemp of Georgia was the oldest veteran to make the trip.

“I’m being treated like a celebrity today. I’m like Denzel Washington. I feel very honored,” Kemp said, seated in a wheelchair at Arlington National Cemetery.

Kemp, a Navy veteran who served from 1943-1946, and the other veterans witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as several reporters from local TV stations filmed them.

The veterans had traveled from Atlanta to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport early Wednesday, where they were met with a water cannon salute as the plane taxied to the gate. The group then boarded two commercial buses for a day of activities.

The first stop was the Marine Corps memorial. An American flag atop a 60-foot-high bronze pole was the first sight the veterans saw as they arrived.

“It hurts me to my soul to think about my brothers and sisters who sacrificed their lives on the battlefield,” said Army veteran Dennis Brazil, who paused at the memorial to pay tribute to fallen soldiers. “It doesn’t matter [which branch] they served. I am overpowered and overwhelmed.”

“I was a draftee out of college when I entered the military. I saw people die on the battlefield. These are my fellow veterans,” he added.

Brazil, who served as a corporal in Vietnam from 1968-1969, said the honor flight was his first trip to the nation’s capital.

The mission of the Honor Flight Network is to recognize the service of U.S. military veterans — including many who are aging and infirmed — with tours of national memorials.

“Black veterans were charged with defending our nation, while also battling various limits placed upon them by society. This trip highlights their extraordinary courage and demonstrates gratitude for their tremendous service,” according to the Honor Flight Network.

Jones, who is from Georgia, said he worked with the veterans group Disabled American Veterans prior to his retirement and has visited war memorials in Washington many times. But this trip was the first time he was able to visit with his daughter.

“I knew about my father’s military history. But I felt I needed to learn more,” Timika Jones said. “I trained for two weeks on how to survive in Vietnam and spent the next 11 months on the front lines,” Jones said. “I was fortunate to make it out with just shrapnel injuries.”