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Vietnam War Veteran Neil Returns to Hawaii

It was almost 60 years ago, but Neil recalls his first time in Hawaii as clearly as if it was yesterday. Standing in the Honolulu airport, he remembers looking out at the blue sky and lush terrain around him.

But Neil was not there to explore the island; he was a young soldier on his way to serve in Vietnam. Standing in the terminal surrounded by childhood friends and young soldiers, he was full of anticipation and emotion as they prepared to go to war.

Neil had no way of knowing this would be the last time he’d stand on American soil for two years—or that he would return from the war a much different man.

After arriving in Vietnam, Neil served as the quartermaster of his camp, nestled deep within the jungle. It was a dangerous time, and they often fell under attack.

“We were hit 2-3 times a week, and we would have to hide in the trench,” Neil shared. “I can still see the green tracers flying two feet over my head with rockets and mortars.”

When Neil left Vietnam, he felt lucky to be alive. However, his wartime experiences remained with him and became part of his civilian life.

Neil struggles with PTSD, which has manifested itself in different ways throughout his life. Everyday experiences like shadows, loud sounds, or even hearing someone walking up behind him are unnerving for him. A lifetime after serving, Neil continues to carry the psychological and emotional burdens of war. He often feels a “tightness” within him, making it hard to relax.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Neil built a full life, working hard and raising a family of four as a single father. Eventually, Neil remarried and shared a very happy life with his new bride for 17 years until she tragically passed away from lung cancer. Neil still misses her dearly to this day.

In this season of his life, Neil lives in a community for older adults. He actively volunteers and is well-loved by his neighbors, including his best friend Sherri, whom he met a few years after moving in.

“These two people are the glue to our community,” shared Eileen, Neil’s wish nominator and Resident Lifestyle Director. “Neil volunteers every week to call bingo and runs group exercises. He has a sweet personality and always has great jokes. Sherri makes all our new residents feel at home, going out of her way to show them around and make them feel welcome.”

When we heard Neil’s story, we were honored to have the opportunity to commemorate his service while helping him fulfill a lifelong wish: to return to Hawaii.

“I was never fortunate enough to experience this happy, emotional, spiritual, wonderful place,” Neil shared. “However, I am hoping that by retracing my steps of 1968, this time, knowing that I am under less stressful circumstances and with my best friend at my side, I am hoping to overcome some of my PTSD.”

We knew just what to do to make Neil’s return to Hawaii a stress-free experience. We recruited Mike and Blyth, two local AARP volunteers who offered to introduce Neil and Sherri to the best of Honolulu.

And from the moment they met at the airport, Mike and Blyth helped Neil and Sherri feel right at home.

“They were so nice and kind,” Neil said. “Blyth took care of us like a mother hen looking over two chicks.”

Together, they explored the island, learning about Hawaii’s history, enjoying local cuisine, and soaking up the sun.

“Mike is a veteran, and we hit it off immediately,” Neil shared. “He is so knowledgeable. He pointed out many landmarks and told us about the island and its history. It was just the best.”

An emotional part of Neil’s trip was visiting the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, which commemorates the events of that fateful day in 1941. It gave Neil the healing opportunity to reflect upon and fully process his service and wartime experiences.

“It put me through some of the combat I have seen,” Neil shared. “I feel a lot calmer now as a result of this; I don’t have the same tightness inside as I did before.”

While Neil’s return to Hawaii was meaningful on so many levels, he shared that the unexpected highlight of the trip was connecting with their wonderful hosts, Mike and Blyth.

“We have two lifetime best friends now; words cannot describe how meaningful they are to us,” he said.

“It was perfect. My wish of a lifetime is now a great memory of a lifetime.”

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