Vietnam veteran creates cart to welcome other veterans home
Cart will be kept, used at Milwaukee airport for any returning veterans
GENESEE, Wis. — The image of a flag-draped casket brought back a lifetime of memories. A year and a half ago, Richard Kalashian was at O’Hare International Airport when he saw a flag-draped casket coming off of a plane and being placed on a baggage cart. The image brought back memories of baggage Kalashian has been carrying for more than four decades.
“I noticed the casket come out and it brought back a lot of memories because I came back through O’Hare Field,” Kalashian said.
In 1969, Kalashian landed at O’Hare after a tour of duty in Vietnam. He served during the Tet Offensive as a platoon sergeant in the 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Brigade and was based about 150 miles south of Saigon. He was 22 years old. During his first week in Vietnam, he had doubts he would see 23.
“They had us pinned down for about a half hour and I remember distinctly having tears in my eyes. I was actually crying, saying that this is the way I’m going to die — here in the mud,” Kalashian said.
The experience helped to harden him to combat and he led his platoon out of danger that day. During the rest of his time in Vietnam he would have many more days filled with danger, however. His platoon would be involved in heavy fighting on a regular basis. One involved a fight with three divisions of the North Vietnamese Army.
“We couldn’t hold them back, so the last resort was napalm and so they dropped napalm,” Kalashian said.
When the napalm was dropped, only a few hundred yards separated life and death. Kalashian was so close he could feel the heat and smell the death. For having the courage to call in a napalm strike to his own location, Kalashian received the Bronze Star.
He was officially honored for his military service and sacrifice, but like so many Vietnam veterans he was not honored when he came home.
“We got an orientation on what to expect when we came home. There were no welcoming committees. You are going to be disliked somewhat, so be careful,” Kalashian said of the advice given by the military. “We were not welcomed when we got home. When I arrived at O’Hare Field, they handed me the suitecase and those were my civilian cloths and I went into the men’s room and I actually changed clothes.”
So when Kalashian again found himself at O’Hare and he saw that casket, the circumstances instantly brought back memories of his return from war.
“They loaded the casket onto the cart and that bothered me, because he was a soldier that had fallen. I thought he deserved a little more respect than that — to be put on a cart, just a plain old cart, like he was baggage,” Kalashian said.
When he returned to his job at S&S Research, an auto body repair shop in Genesee, the image of that flag-draped casket on a luggage cart stayed with him.
“It just bothered me. It just wasn’t right. You know they always say that sometimes it just takes one person to get things going. Well, I guess that happened,” Kalashian said.
With the help and support of his colleagues at S&S Research, Kalashian developed a plan to build a cart that would provide the honor and respect a returning veteran deserved. He contacted Southwest Airlines and the company embraced his idea.
Southwest provided Kalashian with one of its carts that he could then modify.
In the shop at S&S Research, they peeled away the paint on the old cart. It was replaced with red, white and blue paint and emblems for all of the branches of the military.
“They are going to see this and they are going to be amazed. They will be very proud,” Kalashian said.
Once completed, the cart will be given to Southwest Airlines and kept at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. Southwest is going to make the cart available to all the airlines at the airport for any returning veteran.
“I feel like we are doing the right thing,” Kalashian said.