ASHEBORO — Fifty years ago, they arrived home to insults and objects thrown at them.
On this flight home, they were honored and thanked for their service.
David Sampson and Mike Nixon, who grew up in different states, became fast friends while in training with the Air Force during the Vietnam War. On Sept. 27, both were passengers on the Triad Flight of Honor to view the monuments of Washington, D.C.
The trip to the capital came after a wait of a year and a half. Sampson said when they applied, they were at the bottom of a waiting list of some 600 people for the 101 seats.
He said his wife, Mary, had asked them if they were interested in the Flight of Honor. Sampson, a member of the Randolph County Honor Guard, learned more about the program from fellow veterans.
“I called Mike Nixon about it,” he said, and they both applied.
So how did Sampson, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area, become friends with a Randolph County boy?
It was around 1968 when they both were sent to the Air Force’s training center in Denver, Colo., to become weapons control technicians, working on military jets like the F-4 Phantom.
During the down times, airmen would congregate socially and that’s where the two met.
“We got to be friends and we’ve been friends ever since,” Sampson said.
After that training, Nixon was sent to Tampa, Fla., and Sampson went to Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. “That’s where I wanted to go,” Nixon, the North Carolinian, said.
“He was about 300 miles north of me,” Nixon said of Sampson. “I flew up to visit him one day.”
They both eventually ended up at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico before being deployed to Thailand.
They served in Thailand for a year before going back to Holloman, where they expected to remain. But the Air Force needed them back in Thailand for another nine months.
“We kept in contact with each other,” said Nixon, adding that they used military radio transmitters to call their girlfriends back home. Those girlfriends became their wives — Mary and Barbara.
Sampson said of their deployments: “We liked what we did.”
But Nixon had a lemon of an F-4 Phantom. “My plane had a writeup every day and I had to fix it.”
Both of them came home in 1971 and got married. Nixon moved back to Randolph County and Sampson returned to Pennsylvania.
“We constantly called each other and often visited each other,” Sampson said. “When I lost my job in Pennsylvania, he called and asked me if I wanted a job with AT&T.”
Sampson took Nixon’s offer and both were working at AT&T in Winston-Salem while living in Asheboro. They golfed together and their wives became friends as well.
Then Mary asked them if they wanted to apply for the Triad Flight of Honor. After the long wait, they boarded the commercial jet in Greensboro with Sampson’s daughter, Shannon McKaughn, and Nixon’s son, Tyler Nixon, as their guardians.
Nixon’s impression of the event was that “it was very organized. They had the timing down. Fire trucks sprayed water over the plane” as it taxied to the runway.
When they arrived at Reagan National Airport, he said he and Sampson were among the last to enter the terminal. It was just at that time that “young people were singing the Air Force song.”
Sampson recalled that the day in Washington “was exciting and tiring with all that walking.” Nixon said they saw the Air Force Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Iwo Jima Monument, the Korean Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The most meaningful, Nixon said, was “all the names on that Wall. There was one person I knew but all the others — how big it was. It was very solemn.”
Samson agreed: “It gets you worked up inside. I was excited all day with the emotions of seeing the soldiers who had died.”
Nixon was also impressed by the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The soldiers on duty, he said, fired a 21-gun salute, and took 21 steps in 21 seconds. The two World War II veterans on the Flight of Honor placed a wreath at the tomb.
On the flight back to Greensboro, Nixon said, “they gave us a mail call.” Each veteran was given a bag of letters thanking them for their dedication and sacrifice. They also received a special blanket.
“What was most exciting was when we got back to Greensboro, there were 500 people there,” Nixon said.
Sampson explained, “They assembled us and marched us out together led by the World War II guys. There were handshakes and hugs.”
“It was not like coming home from overseas,” Nixon said. “They were total strangers, a wall of people on both sides, thanking us and cheering us.”
“It brought tears to your eyes, that’s for sure,” Sampson said. “I would go back in a second.”
“If asked to go back, I would go,” echoed Nixon.
The Triad Flight of Honor is just part of a nationwide network of flights to take veterans to Washington. What started as a dream in 2005, the National Honor Flight program has been responsible for flying more than 250,000 Veterans to the nation’s capitol to experience their memorial.