Forever Young Veterans organization gives back to those who have given so much

By Kelli Reep

When Billy Davis returned home in 1972 from two tours in Vietnam, his reception was anything but welcoming. He and other veterans were told that, because of protestors outside of the airport gates, they would endure not just ugly names hurled at them, but bags of garbage and worse as well. After dodging taunts, insults and trash, Davis, who was an Army aircraft electrician, door gunner and crew chief, ducked away to change into civilian clothes so he could go on to the next phase of his life.

Veteran Billy Davis. Photo by Stephen Fletcher – Arkansas Action Photography

“I left Vietnam behind me,” he said. “From then on, I didn’t talk about it or acknowledge my time there in any way.”

Diane Hight hears stories like this every day. It’s what keeps her motivated to do all she can to honor the veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Her father, Leland Oliger, served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II, and he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder while building his life in Morrilton (Conway County).

“I am and always will be an Arkansas girl,” Hight said. “Watching my daddy struggle with the effects of the war before anyone knew it had a name (PTSD) had a profound effect on me. When I saw a news story on a World War II veteran getting her wish to drive a race car, then seeing the joy on her face, I thought, ‘I can do that.’ That’s what led me to begin Forever Young Veterans.”

This nonprofit provides senior veterans, ages 65 and older, free trips to former battlegrounds like Normandy, Belgium, Pearl Harbor, Germany, Vietnam, England, Italy and South Korea, as well as honor trips to Washington, D.C., to visit war memorials and the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine museums. Everything from roundtrip flights to hotel accommodations, bus travel and meals is completely free for senior veterans.

Founder Diane Hight takes United States Veterans on honor trips to Washington, D.C., to visit war memorials and the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine museums.

“What we have found is these trips are a deep source of healing for the veterans,” Hight said. “Many of our veterans, especially those who fought in Vietnam, Korea and World War II, suffer in silence from their experiences in or near combat. 

“Forever Young Veterans works to end this by granting their individual wishes, returning them to places where they fought and taking them on a Trip of Honor to Washington, D.C. When we honor our veterans, their healing begins.”

In fact, the first trip Forever Young Veterans was able to accomplish began as one veteran’s wish to visit the National World War II Memorial. Many of these veterans had not witnessed the monument that stands in their honor. This led to other Wish of Honor trips, including a veteran finding a former war buddy, riding in a B-17 again and throwing out the first pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals.

“You know, my daddy never asked for anything from his country,” Hight said. “He was only 17 when he entered the service. When I decided to pursue Forever Young Veterans, I thought I could get some veterans medals they may have lost or coordinate reunions. It became so much more than that and just exploded.

“I wanted to take his suffering and help bring healing and hope into the lives of his comrades. I’ve never taken a salary, so we could honor as many veterans as possible with Trips of Honor, which is my gift to my dad.”

It wasn’t until Davis met Hight that he began to come to terms with his service in Vietnam. To date, he has taken four trips to Washington, D.C., and plans to go on more to help veterans like him find the healing they need and deserve.“Today, you won’t find me without my Vietnam Veteran hat or a shirt,” he said. “After my first trip to Washington, D.C., I realized being a Vietnam Veteran is something special. I’m proud to be one.”