Retired Spc. Tony Martinez received a homecoming unlike any he has ever received when he stepped off of the plane that took the 50th Kansas Honor Flight.
A crowd of people cheered Martinez and dozens of fellow veterans as they made their way through the Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport.
"What really got me...was hearing the crowd when we got off the plane," Martinez said. "I didn't expect it."
A native of Newton, Martinez served in the Army during the Vietnam War.
"I was in high school in 1968, and I got a letter that I was drafted and they were going to take me right out of school," Martinez recalled.
His foster mother, Connie Palacioz, was not happy that he was chosen.
"She went to the draft board and gave them hell," Martinez said.
Nevertheless, he and several friends soon boarded a train —conducted by Clarence Webb at that time — bound for Kansas City.
After going to Ft. Leonard Wood for basic training, he went to Virginia and then spent 30 days back in Newton before being shipped to Vietnam.
"I was there for two Christmases, two birthdays and two Thanksgivings," Martinez said.
His introduction to Vietnam was a memorable one.
"The first night we were there, we got hit. The rounds were coming in and everybody was scrambling, trying to find a place to hide," Martinez recalled. "That was the first night. I felt that one."
The intense heat and monsoon rains made for uncomfortable working conditions.
"When we landed, I wanted to get back in the plane. ...It was like an oven," Martinez said. "You just sweated. You could buy a little fan, but it'd just blow hot air the whole time."
Stationed in Cam Ranh Bay, he worked in a supply warehouse.
"I know the other servicemen were out 24/7, day and night," Martinez said. "But when they needed something, I was right there."
He also spent time in an office, working with early computers.
"After that, I got kind of bored, so then I asked if I could go on the convoys," Martinez said.
Those convoys were tasked with looking for soldiers who had gone AWOL after meeting Vietnamese women.
Some Vietnamese women would show him scars on their legs, telling him the Viet Cong were responsible.
"They'd always say, 'V.C. number 10 — G.I. number one!' Then they'd ask for soap or cigarettes," Martinez recalled.
During his military career, he saw war protests being televised, including one from his hometown.
"One thing that really ticked me off was Bethel College. They had a protest and I was so mad," Martinez said. "They were carrying signs against the war. ...I felt terrible."
He lost many friends while he was in Vietnam, and wondered why his life was spared.
"I feel like I could have died out there," Martinez said. "I always ask God, 'why me, why did I come home?' There were guys that had families, wives, children, were grandparents, whatever, and here I was, still single."
When he was discharged and came back to Newton, he kept to himself.
"I was stuck in my room for a while," Martinez said, shaking his head. "I didn't want to do anything."
Robert Llamas, a friend who had also served in Vietnam, finally convinced him to go out. Not long after, Martinez met his future wife, Sophie, at a nightclub in Hutchinson.
"I swore before I went to Vietnam I would never go get married or have a girlfriend, because I didn't know what was going to happen," Martinez said.
Nearly 50 years later, Sophie sent her husband a letter with a picture of their children that he would receive during his Honor Flight. He also got letters from senators, congressmen and members of the First Presbyterian Church, where he currently works.
"It was a real honor," Martinez said.
During his visit to D.C. with the Kansas Honor Flight, he toured Fort McHenry and Arlington Cemetery.
"I walked up to the Lincoln Memorial — I thought I'd never get there. It was a lot of steps," Martinez laughed. "I finally got up there and I said, 'Oh, God. Now I've got to go back down.' So I stayed up there and took some pictures of the Lincoln statue."
He also visited the memorials for World War II and the Vietnam War. At the Korean War Memorial, he met visitors from Korea and thanked them for their countrymen's military service.
"When I was in Vietnam, I was with the Koreans and the Australians and I really trusted the Koreans a lot. They don't mess around," Martinez said. "I have a lot of respect for them."
The thanks he and his fellow veterans received throughout the Honor Flight touched him deeply.
"Before we got ready to board in Wichita, the people on other flights were all clapping and screaming," Martinez said. "When I came back and heard the cheers, I said, 'this is for the fallen soldiers that didn't come home.'"
A cancer survivor, he makes regular trips to the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center, where he hears other veterans sharing their war stories. He, like many other Vietnam veterans, does not join in.
"We don't talk about it," Martinez said. "We just let it go. If you really think about what happened over there and seeing what we've seen, you wouldn't be right."
Martinez now proudly displays a Vietnam veteran license plate on his truck, often wears his Vietnam hat and flies an American flag in front of his house.
"When I see a veteran, no matter what branch he's in, I always thank him," Martinez said. "I'm always proud to have fought for our country."
For more information about Kansas Honor Flights and how to apply for or donate to the program, visit https://www.kansashonorflight.org or call 620-546-2400.