March 2, 2021

Operation LZ: It’s Never Too Late to Thank a Veteran

Veteran viewing the wall-X3For many Vietnam-era veterans, coming home to America was as bitter as the cups of coffee thrown in some veterans’ faces. For decades, many of these veterans rarely—or never—discussed their military experiences, not even with their families.

It troubled Riley Lewis, a Forest City-area farmer who had been interviewing local veterans and sharing their stories on KIOW Radio during his free time. “America sent these men and women to war, but America wasn’t there for them when they returned. It was time to honor their service.”

Lewis, who lost four high school classmates in the Vietnam War, began asking Vietnam-era veterans for their input. While they didn’t want a parade or a large banquet, they liked the idea of a gathering where they could bring their families.

In the winter of 2014, Lewis and a committee of 20 other volunteers, including 16 veterans, began planning what would become Operation LZ. The Vietnam-era vets/welcome home event took its name from the landing zones (LZ) in Vietnam, where much of the war was fought.

“Little by little, things came together,” said Lewis, who met with the Operation LZ committee every two weeks for 18 months.

There was nothing little about Operation LZ by the time the free event took place from Aug. 27-30, 2015. Held at the Forest City Airport, Heritage Park, and the Winnebago Rally Grounds, it attracted approximately 18,000 people on Saturday, Aug. 29, and 6,000 people on Sunday, Aug. 30. “We wanted the veterans’ children and grandchildren to know that these veterans served honorably and did their job well,” Lewis said. “It was remarkable to see families come together and honor their loved ones.”

8292015_ 679-X3Bringing the generations together
Operation LZ featured a wide array of activities, including:
• Education days with area students. On Aug. 27-28, approximately 1,900 high school and middle school students from 10 local school districts had the chance to visit with Vietnam-era veterans. “They wanted to know why the Vietnam veterans were treated so poorly when they returned home,” Lewis said. “Also, the coach of the Mason City High School football team wanted his players to hear from the veterans what teamwork is all about.”
• Huey and Cobra helicopter rides. “There was always a line of people waiting for rides,” said Lewis, who noted that the helicopters flew up to Iowa from Georgia. “We hauled 930 people during these free rides.”

• Distinguished guest speakers. The speakers included Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Navy Lt. Commander Larry Spencer, an Iowa native who spent seven years as a prisoner in the “Hanoi Hilton,” and retired Lt. General Dennis Hejlik, a Garner native who served with the U.S. Marines Corps. “Today’s U.S. military is highly trained, highly equipped, and all volunteer,” said Hejlik, who credits his youth on his family’s farm for teaching him responsibility and accountability. “America has this remarkable military because of the legacy of the Vietnam-era veterans.”

_DSC8411 copy-X2• Presentation of commemorative medals. As Hejlik presented the medals to each Vietnam-era veteran who attended Operation LZ, he thanked them for their service and welcomed them home. “I had a homecoming when I returned from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon,” said Hejlik, who completed five combat tours during his 44-year military career. “Since the Vietnam-era veterans didn’t receive this kind of homecoming, Operation LZ was a very humbling, emotional event for many families.”

These families and veterans came from all over the Midwest and beyond to enjoy the Private Malone Car Show, air show, hot air balloon rides, display of the Vietnam Traveling Wall Memorial, pancake breakfasts, food vendors, patriotic live music, and many other activities.

“We intended to focus on nine counties in our area when we started planning,” Lewis said. “As word of Operation LZ spread, however, we got calls from Fort Dodge, Sioux City, Kansas City, and other communities. We didn’t want to turn these veterans down.”

As the scope of the event grew, so did the influx of donations. “We raised $260,000,” said Lewis, who noted that contributions ranged from $5 to $30,000. “We appreciate the generous support of local organizations like MaxYield Cooperative, which play such vital roles in our local communities.”

Based on the success of Operation LZ, Lewis and his fellow volunteers are already thinking about hosting a “Super LZ” event in 2017. In the meantime, Lewis knows there are still many opportunities to honor those who served. “It’s never too late to thank a veteran, especially a Vietnam veteran.” N

Remembering the Vietnam War
• 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
• More than 3 million young men and women were called to fight for America in Southeast Asia.
• During the war, 58,286 Americans were killed, while 153,303 were wounded.

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