When the Flying Thunder crew flew out of Murrieta, Calif., last Monday, they had one mission in mind — earning respect for Vietnam-era veterans that they say is long overdue.
"I think Vietnam veterans have gotten a raw deal in not getting the respect they deserve," said Flying Thunder volunteer and former Army helicopter pilot Tom Woehl.
The 20-member team, created by the Wings and Rotors Air Museum in Murrieta, has flown three combat-certified Vietnam-era helicopters from California to the Washington area, high above the famous Rolling Thunder motorcycle group as they made their journey to the District for Memorial Day.
Though the groups are not affiliated, they share an appreciation for the sacrifices of soldiers and Marines in Southeast Asia — in a bitterly unsuccessful effort to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam and neighboring countries — and a regard for those who made it back home only to feel denigrated by fellow Americans.
"We found that there was really a need to honor Vietnam vets because there hasn't been enough," said Flying Thunder spokeswoman Shayne Mader. "It really makes a difference to them."
Flying Thunder Executive Director Pat Rodgers said he thinks Americans are beginning to better understand the Vietnam War and shedding negative stereotypes of its veterans.
"Vietnam veterans were never received real well when they came home," Mr. Rodgers said. "It wasn't until the Gulf War guys started coming home that people started appreciating them."
Mr. Rodgers served eight years in the Army and 21 years in the Air National Guard.
The team has flown to a dozen cities across the country and visited several Vietnam War memorials while letting veterans and their families check out the helicopters up close.
Mr. Rodgers said the team's visits have helped many veterans open up about their feelings to themselves or their families.
"We had one guy who's had nightmares every night since the war, but after he sat in the Huey [helicopter], he didn't have any more," Mr. Rodgers said. "It's kind of therapeutic what we're doing for the guys."
Flying Thunder initially requested to fly over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, which is in restricted airspace, but were denied permission by federal authorities. So the team will cool its jets over the weekend at Leesburg Executive Airport, where the public is invited to visit.
The tour will continue through June 5 as the team heads back home.
The Vietnam War began in 1956 and U.S. troops got involved in 1962. The war ended in 1975.
About 8.1 million American troops served during the war, a third of which were stationed in Vietnam at some point, according to the Census Bureau.