Marilyn Bassett had leveraged a patriotic surge she experienced on a high school trip into a 30-year career with the U.S. military.
Now, she was back in Washington, D.C., where it all began.
Mrs. Bassett, a U.S. Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War and current principal of Visitation Inter-Parish School in Vienna, was a passenger on the Nov. 5 Central Missouri Honor Flight to the nation’s capital.
“It was nice to be recognized for my service during that timeframe and to be there for others who had it worse than me, coming back from combat overseas,” she said.
Honor Flight groups lead veterans on an all-expenses-paid, one-day trip to Washington to visit the great national monuments.
The fast-paced journeys are filled with gratitude and patriotic pomp.
Mrs. Bassett made the trip on her own behalf and on that of her husband, the late Maries County Sheriff Roy Luke Bassett, who was killed in the line of duty in 1994.
He had been an Air Force combat veteran in Vietnam. They met while stationed together in Alabama.
“I think he would have benefitted from going on this trip,” said Mrs. Bassett. “I didn’t know him when he went over there. I know that I could not go behind him without letting him know. He was kind of jumpy from being over there.”
The Bank of Maries County sponsored Mrs. Bassett on the Honor Flight after drawing her name in a lottery of Korean War and Vietnam War veterans at a veterans’ dinner last year.
She filled out an application with Central Missouri Honor Flight and found out in October that she had been scheduled for the Nov. 5 flight — the group’s 56th.
All but three of the 108 honorees were men.
“Women in the military were definitely a minority back then,” said Mrs. Bassett.
Prayers and healing
The Vietnam War of the 1960s and early ’70s was a stressful time for everyone in the military — especially people like Mrs. Bassett’s husband who experienced combat.
“Reading the Bible every day, praying the Rosary, going to Mass — I had been doing all those things since high school,” said Mrs. Bassett. “I think having a good relationship with God helps get you through, all the more so if you’re in harm’s way.”
As the anti-war movement in this country gained traction, many of the men and women who served in Vietnam found something short of a hero’s welcome when they returned.
“Some of these vets came home and were told not to wear their uniforms because of the peace riots,” she said. “One Marine on our flight got spat on and called a baby-killer. So a lot of healing had to be done on this trip.”
Some of that healing took place at the Vietnam War Memorial near the Lincoln Memorial.
The somber, outdoor memorial is made up of polished black slabs of granite etched with the names of the people who died in the war.
Many of the veterans, especially those who lost friends in Vietnam, found solace in stopping to think and pray at the memorial.
Other moments of connection and restoration came at the World War II and Korean War memorials, the monuments for each of the military branches, the memorial to women who served, and Arlington National Cemetery, where the Honor Flight participants witnessed the Changing of the Guard.
Visiting seventh-grade students from Fort Worth, Texas, waited at the cemetery in pouring rain to greet the veterans and thank them for their service.
Thine alabaster cities
Mrs. Bassett grew up Catholic in New Hampshire.
She traveled with her high school band to Washington during the National Cherry Blossom Festival in the Spring of 1969.
Visiting the great national monuments and Arlington National Cemetery and hearing an Army fife and drum corps helped awaken in her a higher sense of purpose.
“I wanted to do something to serve my country,” she said. “That’s what got me started.”
She graduated that June and with her parents’ permission joined the Air Force in November.
She served for two years as a photo lab technician at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, where airmen and soldiers were training for battle.
That’s where she and her husband met. They got married in February 1971. She resigned from the Air Force in October 1971 when she became pregnant with their first child.
In 1975, she entered the Civil Service workforce at Fort Leonard Wood.
During her time at Fort Leonard Wood, she saw men and women off to overseas combat in Operation Desert Storm and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and helped welcome them back.
After 30 years with the government, she retired from the Department of the Army in 2004 and became a teacher.
She has been principal in Vienna since 2017.
Missing welcome, at last
The men and women of Central Missouri Honor Flight 56 received heroes’ welcomes when they departed, throughout the trip and upon their return.
Police escorted them through traffic in the capital city. Doctors and other volunteers helped keep the travelers comfortable throughout the journey.
A high-school band played patriotic songs for them in the Reagan National Airport terminal in Washington.
A woman was handing out thank-you cards to the veterans. When she caught sight of the three women who served, she took photos of the three with her daughters.
The group returned to St. Louis late that night and rode back to Columbia in buses.
An honor guard consisting of 56 men and women on motorcycles and highway patrol cars met them at Kingdom City. The Missouri State Highway Patrol had closed the highway so the Honor Flight participants and their entourage could have it to themselves.
They saw bonfires, signs, and flag-waving civilians along the road as they headed toward Columbia.
A crowd met them at the end of their trip, shaking their hands and saying, “Thank you” and “Welcome back!” — two things many of the vets did not hear when they returned from combat.
Mrs. Bassett’s granddaughter, a fourth-grader at Holy Family School in Freeburg, was there, holding a sign, for the “welcome back” ceremony.
One of the other vets in a wheelchair stopped and told her, “I did it for you.”
“We all had reasons why we served,” said Mrs. Bassett. “For him, it was for the young people.”
A couple of weeks after the Honor Flight, Mrs. Bassett was still processing the experience — sorting through memories, looking at photos, rereading letters, reexamining mementos and thinking about how best to share all of this with her students.
“I’m trying to come down from being up on that mountaintop, taking time to absorb the whole reality of it,” she said.
She teaches fourth- through eighth-grade social studies and hopes some of her Honor Flight stories will be of interest to them and other students.
There are many veterans among the school’s alumni. The students are proud of their veteran principal and all the others in the parish who served.
A table in the school hallway the week of Veterans Day displayed photos of students’ relatives, living and deceased, who served in the military.
Last year, the student council raised money for the Central Missouri Honor Flight.
“I hope they realize that their freedom was won by people in uniform!” said Mrs. Bassett. “Ever since the Revolutionary War, we have relied on our military to safeguard our freedoms.
“We can go to church, practice our religion and voice our opinions openly, thanks to these hard-won freedoms,” she said.
She hopes young women seeking to serve in the military will remember the women who helped open doors to opportunities that previously were reserved for men.
“I hope they see that we led the way for them,” she said.