Local Vietnam vet going on Honor Flight to D.C.

Submitted photos

Submitted photos

By Kendra Evensen, kevensen@journalnet.com

PRESTON – A local Vietnam War veteran will visit Washington, D.C., for the first time this month to see the memorials that were built to honor him and others who have served this country.

Dennis Jensen of Preston was selected to take part in the Utah Honor Flight’s trip Nov. 9 to 11. The non-profit organization Honor Flight Network, which has hubs in many states, transports veterans to the nation’s capital to see the memorials that honor their service and sacrifices, according to www.honorflight.org.

“The mission of the Honor Flight is to create an atmosphere for three days for these veterans to make them feel that they truly are something special, something that our country values,” according to a Utah Honor Flight video on YouTube. “Everything from the bagpipes to the military personnel to the people standing along the sides clapping for them like they’re in a parade. We want them to feel unique, we want them to feel extraordinary.”

Jensen said his wife, Jerri Jensen, sent an application on his behalf five years ago, and he recently learned that he had been chosen to go on the November flight. He invited his friend, Randy Moore, who is from Clifton and also served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, to go with him as his companion/guardian.

Jensen said he is honored to be able to travel to Washington, D.C., with other veterans on this special trip.

“What an outstanding opportunity for this to happen to me. I can’t believe it,” Jensen said.

Still, he knows the trip will also be an emotional one for him — especially when he sees the names of his friends and comrades on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

He’s seen similar memorials in the past.

“All I could do was cry. I think about it and my heart breaks,” he said. “It’s a great memorial, but it doesn’t make it better. Those people were real. They’re names of people that were alive — people who were talking and playing one day and dead the next. We were flying and we were men, but we were young men.”

Although he wasn’t sure he wanted to go initially, Jensen now believes the trip will be good for him.

Jensen, who came from a patriotic family, enlisted in the Army in 1967 when he was just 17 years old. He said his father, Delbert DeeRay Jensen, served in World War II on the USS Pennsylvania battleship, and his brother, Guy Jensen, also served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, although he was never sent to Vietnam.

Submitted photos

Jensen said seven people in his high school class joined the service. Four of them were killed, two were wounded and only one came home without any injuries.

Jensen was one of those who was wounded.

He grew up on a farm in Genola, Utah, and already knew how to shoot, so he quickly excelled in his training. He went on to become a gunner and helicopter crew chief. He flew on UH-1C helicopters that carried four men and 3,000 pounds of ammunition and armament, he said.

Jensen said they were called in to clear areas ahead of the infantry, and they rescued those in the Army, Marines and Air Force — whoever got into difficult situations and needed their help.

“We flew all over Vietnam from one end to the other,” Jensen said, adding that they served many missions and were involved in some hairy situations.

And they didn’t always come back.

Jensen was riding in helicopters that were shot down on two different occasions, and he said they came down hard because they were overloaded with ammunition and armament.

The first time he suffered a compacted spine and was in the hospital for a month. He said the pilot broke his back in seven places and the crew chief busted his left arm and back, too.

The second time, Jensen was the only crew member who survived.

He said he landed about a half mile behind enemy lines. His pelvis was shattered, his hip was broken. He had shrapnel and bullet wounds. And he was alone.

He couldn’t walk, but he was able to crawl into a pile of rice straw and cover himself up. He spent three days behind enemy lines before he was rescued, he said.

That time it took him nearly a year to recover. He spent time in hospitals in Japan and Colorado, he said.

Jensen continued to serve until he was discharged at the end of 1969. He received two Purple Hearts and a medal for air combat, he said.

Jensen still has a limp today, but that’s not the only scar he carries.

He said he killed many men during his few years of service, and he still sometimes thinks and dreams about them. But he says he also has to remember how many lives he saved.

“Over there I killed a lot of people, but I saved a lot of lives,” he said, adding that he tries to focus on those he helped. “That’s the only way I can live with myself sometimes.”

Like other Vietnam veterans, Jensen has also suffered from exposure to Agent Orange. He attributes some of the challenges he’s faced in recent years — liver failure, thyroid problems and diabetes — to the chemical. He said he still has to get shots every week.

And yet, Jensen doesn’t hesitate to say that he would do it all over again if he needed to.

“I would go fight for my country at any time and age,” he said.

Jensen believes the United States of America is the greatest place on earth.

“I wouldn’t trade a helmet full of American soil for another Third World country. We have so many freedoms,” he said.

Jensen is looking forward to flying to Washington, D.C., with other veterans who have helped to protect America and its freedoms.

“A lot gave all and we’re just a privileged bunch of testimonies of what happened there,” he said.

While Jensen’s hometown did celebrate his return from the war, he said many of those who served in Vietnam weren’t given much recognition when they came home. He doesn’t think many Americans really understood the war and what they had been fighting for.

“We were not disgraced, but just kind of put away,” he said.

He feels like that is finally changing with the Utah Honor Flight. He says people are paying for the veterans’ expenses and are thanking them for their service.

“It’s so wonderful what they’re doing — especially for the Vietnam veterans. It’s nice to be looked at and seen,” he said.