Service to veterans comes full circle with father’s Honor Flight

By Michelle Matuszak, American Red Cross

Ron Matuszak, left, and his daughter Michelle Matuszak, at the airport in Appleton ahead of his first-ever veterans Honor Flight in September.

Since June 2018, I have spent countless mornings brewing coffee and gathering supplies for troop sendoff ceremonies and welcome home celebrations. As the Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) Regional Manager at the American Red Cross, it is my honor and privilege to serve veterans, military and their families at these powerful and important events.

However, on a recent, mid-September morning, it was my turn to send off someone dear to me – my father, Ronald Matuszak. A Vietnam War Veteran, he was bound for Washington, D.C. with the Old Glory Honor Flight out of Appleton.

I was excited for him on this special day, especially knowing that I’d see him again in just a few hours. It was an amazing opportunity for him and his fellow veterans to share memories and reflect on their time in the service among the awe-inspiring monuments. And it brought home once again that unique position I am so proud to hold, as someone who serves veterans every day – including my own dad.

From 1967-70, my father served in the United States Army as part of the 551st Light Maintenance Company under the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment stationed in Xuân Lộc, Vietnam. His main role was vehicle mechanic but he also drove in convoys. Upon his return home to the Green Bay area to work and raise our family, my father rarely talked about his military service. I’ve come to learn this is common, especially for those who served in Vietnam. Most of the pictures or anecdotes I’d hear came up actually from my maternal grandmother, who was active as a Gold Star Mother in military memorial services in our community.

But when the opportunity for this honor flight came up, my dad became very eager to join. In one way, this flight opened him up to talking more about his service. He was excited for this present-day link to his service. He also teased me that I had “connections” and should be able to get him on a flight ASAP. After COVID put a pause on flights, we were able to reserve his seat for the flight a few weeks ago.

On the flight itself, he was able to bond with other veterans, from Vietnam and other wars and branches. In the nation’s Capitol, my father was able to spend important time reflecting and sharing stories at sites such as the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and Arlington Cemetery. The Old Glory Honor Flight team provided him with such good care and memorabilia, like a framed headshot and picture of their group from that day. (He hung it up at his house – and promised me he didn’t have to remove or cover up any of our other family pictures to find space!)

Ron Matuszak at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. during the Old Glory Honor Flight. Ron was one of dozens of Wisconsin veterans who went on the one-day trip.

The part of the trip he can’t stop talking about came near the end, on the return flight after what was no doubt a long and emotional day. The Honor Flight team announced “mail call,” and shared with each veteran on board a packet of letters. For my dad, that included 15 or so letters and drawings from our family. He didn’t see that coming and it added a nice personal touch as myself and my family gave him the welcome home that he didn’t get coming back from Vietnam in 1970. (And this welcome home included a big hug from me.) 

Family relations aside, the sacrifice and service of our nation’s veterans is always present to me from my role at the Red Cross. Whether it is helping secure emergency lodging for a veteran and their family or donating much needed items to our four VA Medical Centers and three State Veterans Homes, the Red Cross is committed to working alongside the armed forces.

When the SAF team provides Get to Know Us Before You Need Us briefings at premobilization events, it’s rewarding to be able to truly share with members of the military, veterans, and their families that the Red Cross is behind them every step of the way. From Emergency Communications to Reconnection Workshops, we provide quality services to all who serve and served. I know our loyal SAF volunteers and staff are eager for a full return to these programs and all of these veteran and military sendoffs as we hopefully turn the corner on the pandemic.  

As my dad returned from his round-trip, one-day immersive reflection on his military service, I have also come full circle with my father and my profession. Like I wrote my father in his “mail call” letter, I’m grateful he was able to take this flight and I am so proud of him for his service to our country.

You can find programs and resources for veterans, service members and military families. You can also join our Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) volunteers. Click here to get involved in Red Cross support of veterans, service members and military families.

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