Forty-six years ago, Gregory A. Cummins, DO, was 10 years old when he greeted his father, MSGT Bob Cummins, at Robins Air Force Base in Central Georgia. His father, who was 36, was returning home after the end of the Vietnam War.
On April 6, 2019, Dr. Cummins, a hospitalist with Meritas Health Hospitalists, again greeted his father as he disembarked a plane. This time, their reunion was at Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Dr. Cummins had traveled from Kansas City. Bob had flown from his Georgia home via the Honor Flight Network.
“I remember being 10 and going with my mom and siblings to see my dad get off the plane in Georgia, but I knew many other fathers did not return home,” Dr. Cummins recalled. “Now my father had been invited on an Honor Flight. I told him I wanted to go with him.”
A nonprofit organization, the network honors America’s World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans by transporting them to Washington, D.C., to visit their memorials and back home free of charge. In 2017, 10 years after the network formed, more than 200,000 veterans had been escorted via 140 regional hubs. Escorts, who are family members, friends and volunteers, pay their own ways.
Upon arrival in the morning at BWI, airport fire trucks sprayed an arc of water over the taxiing plane. After a pomp-and-circumstance greeting, Dr. Cummins, Bob and 13 Middle Georgia Honor Flight veterans and their escorts boarded a coach bus staffed with 10 active duty U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy personnel, who assisted with the daylong tour.
“I was able to meet my dad at his gate because the Honor Flight arranged my nonflying passenger pass,” Dr. Cummins said. “Then it was go, go, go. If it had not been for the National Park Police running lights and sirens to escort our bus, we would not have made all our stops. We also were there during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, so there were a lot of crowds.”
The entourage’s first stop was Arlington National Cemetery, where they witnessed the solemn changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After the ceremony, they visited the Air Force, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Korean War Veterans, Marine Corps, Navy, Vietnam Veterans and World War II memorials. By 6 p.m., they headed back to the airport to return home.
About a month before leaving for the Honor Flight, Bob told his son about a friend killed in action. “I had not heard my dad mention him before,” Dr. Cummins said. “He was a tail gunner, too. I’ve never seen my dad get very emotional, but he was when he found his friend’s name engraved in the wall.”
His Air Force comrade was SMS Walter Ferguson. “He was 6 years older and had headed back to the states to retire in 1972,” Bob said. “He got as far as Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, but as soon as he got off the plane he was sent back to Guam. He was killed in Operation Linebacker II, his first mission out.” Ferguson died Dec. 18, 1972. He was 43.
“Being at the Vietnam Memorial was emotional for me,” Bob said. “When we returned from the Vietnam War, we were encouraged not to wear our uniforms off base because of anti-war protests. I felt appreciated everywhere we went during this trip. I recommend any veteran take it if they can.”
Bob began his military service in 1956 in Morocco at Nouasseur Air Base (which they aptly nicknamed Nasty Sewer), first working as a mechanic on piston engines. That led to gaining expertise as a C-121A and C-121B mechanic.
“I was an aircraft mechanic during the Lebanon Crisis in 1958,” said Bob, who is 82. “When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (for whom the airport is named) was flying into Morocco, I serviced his C121A’s oxygen. Funny thing though, the oxygen cart’s high-pressure safety valve went off. It caused a little hassle for a little while.”
During the Vietnam War, Bob was a tail gunner first on B52Ds and then on B52Gs, the former with him positioned in the plane’s tail and the latter with him in the cabin operating the guns remotely. In all, he flew 120 combat missions out of Guam and Thailand. Most missions were 16 hours, but Bob’s longest flight was 27 hours due to stormy weather both directions.
In 1973, Bob was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross. The medal is awarded to any officer or enlisted person in the U.S. Armed Forces for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight. Both heroism and achievement must be entirely distinctive, involving operations that are not routine.
Dr. Cummins shared how his father came to be recognized. “Another B52 in a three-plane formation lost radar on a combat support mission. My dad used his gun radar to position the plane into bombing position to save the mission,” said Dr. Cummins, adding that his father also received seven Air Medals during his military career.
When Bob returned home after the Vietnam War in 1973, he taught advanced electronics at the Precision Measurement Laboratory at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, where he had been stationed twice before and ultimately retired in 1976.
Dr. Cummins, who is 56, began the process a few months ago to join the Army Reserve. A family history of service contributed to his decision.
“My father was raised in a Pennsylvania Farm family,” Dr. Cummins said. “Of my grandparents’ 13 children, 11 lived to adulthood and seven of my dad’s brothers served in the military. My three kids are a little older, the timing is right and my wife knows I want to do this.”