CEDAR RAPIDS— Estimates vary widely but it is generally believed there were between 5,000 and 6,250 nurses serving with the United States Army in the Vietnam War. Among them was JoAnne (Bryant) Downes, of Oxford. On Tuesday, Oct. 5, Downes and 80 other veterans, mostly from the Korean and Vietnam wars, embarked on the 40th Honor Flight from the Eastern Iowa Airport, in Cedar Rapids, for a day spent in Washington, DC touring the many war memorials.

Downes was in the first class to graduate from Clear Creek High School and was assigned to hospitals in Saigon, Lai Khe and Phu Bai from 1969 to 1970.

“I went over with a friend, we went on the ‘Buddy Plan (friends who entered the service together could be stationed together),’ and it was where I needed to be at that time in my life. I was glad I did it.”

While home on leave, she and then-fiancée and still husband today Dan picked out an engagement ring, which he ended up mailing to her in Vietnam despite concerns for it’s safe arrival from her mother.

“She (her mother) told me ‘Dan said if that’s all I lose over there, it’ll be alright.’ I got that ring and I thought I got to wrap up this year because I got to get home. For awhile you think I can’t go home, I know how to do this now and the wounded are going to keep coming in, so I can’t leave. Then I got that ring and I changed my mind. I’ll let the next ones come in, and they’ll serve their year like I did mine.”

Nurses in Vietnam served a one-year tour of duty after six weeks of basic training at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, the Army’s medical home. In total, she served two years and was promoted from the rank of 2nd Lieutenant to 1st Lieutenant. Upon leaving the Army, she began a career at the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital, in Iowa City. Now retired, she serves on the Johnson County Veterans Board and is spearheading the fundraising efforts for a new Veterans Memorial in Oxford.

“I just wish more nurses could go on this,” she said.

Downes was one of only three women on the flight but a stop at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial was a priority in their honor. They received special recognition before the group departed Arlington National Cemetery according to The Eastern Iowa Honor Flight organization.

“It’s just a marvelous thing. They are so organized, and we saw so many things and they were constantly being tour guides and telling us about all the memorials. They did an excellent job.”

The Women’s Memorial especially resonated with Downes.

“Women from long ago that I stood on the shoulders of. I have been to a woman veteran’s conference, and I see all the young gals that are now going on and doing everything in the military. I got to see what the older ones did, in that memorial, and in that conference, I saw the young group. They’re all fantastic.”

Downes was escorted by her daughter Sara Downes Kalkwarf.

Julie Hajek (co-owner of Home Repair Team, in North Liberty) and her cousin Tim were also on the flight escorting her father Dale Steffen and uncle John Steffen . John served in the Army from May 1966 to April 1968 and was assigned to Vietnam from April 1967 until his discharge.

“Highlights,” he said of the day, “were the memorials, Silent Drill Team performance, and changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”

A native of Lamont, John lives in Anamosa today.

Dale is also an Army veteran having served from April 1965 to January 1967 with a deployment to Korea from December ’65 until his discharge.

“My highlights of the day started with Senator Joni Ernst taking time to come and speak to us and making us feel appreciated, the changing of the guards at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. The respect and honor the guard gave this memorial, and then they took the time to come and talk to us afterwards. The Marine (Silent) Drill Team, the time and commitment they go through to make the team, and how proud they are to be able to do this. Plus, the Vietnam, Korean, Lincoln, WW2, Marine and Air Force Memorials. They were all very impressive. You see them on TV, but that’s nothing to being there to see the real memorials. The Eastern Iowa Honor Flight Team did an awesome job.”

Dale lived in North Liberty from 1969 to 2009 and currently lives in Albia.

Also among the group was 95-year-old Mike Wilson, a US Navy veteran from WW2. Wilson has been on previous Honor Flights and serves as an advisor to the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight. He has also donated over $200,000 to make it possible for other veterans to make the trip. The 40th flight was named in his honor.

The organization exists to provide veterans with a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to visit the monuments and memorials built in their honor. While all United States veterans are welcomed and encouraged to apply for a flight priority is given to WW2, Korean War and veterans with catastrophic illnesses followed by Vietnam veterans and veterans from other conflicts.

The final flight of 2021 is already booked and departs the Eastern Iowa Airport on Tuesday, Oct. 19. The public is encouraged to fill the terminal and welcome these men and women home and thank them for their service and sacrifice on our behalf.

More information on the Honor Flights can be found online at https://eihonorflight.org, by email at easterniowahonorflight@gmail.com, by phone at 855-344-3435, or by mail at Eastern Iowa Flight, P.O. Box 10704, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52410. Donations are accepted to offset expenses for the all-volunteer non-profit (501©3) organization. However, donations are not accepted from WW2 veterans.

“They have given enough,” the organization said.

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