SPARTA — Like most veterans, Leon Holtrey doesn’t crave attention for his service a half century ago.
Holtrey, who turns 71 in August, took an Honor Flight out of Columbus April 27. It’s a thank you to veterans and a coveted tribute.
He served 367 days in the Vietnam War in 1968-69. Soon after, he was awarded two Purple Hearts.
Despite the commendations, the 1966 graduate of Highland High School remains humble.
“I wouldn’t trade the experience for what I got out of it. But I didn’t really experience military life because 5 months after I was in, I was in combat. I turned 21 while I was in Vietnam.”
Holtrey served as a Corporal in the Infantry and the first Purple Heart involved a friendly fire incident on Dec. 7, 1968.
“We got sent out in the field. The first week we was out there, we got ambushed twice and mortared 5 times,” he said.
“The guys were either killed or wounded. I was the only guy left in my squad. That don’t make me no hero or nothing. I don’t want to give that impression … I survived.”
The second award was the result of enemy fire, a B-40 rocket attack, on May 16, 1969.
The Honor Flight with 120 other veterans came about by happenstance.
“I was sitting drinking coffee one day at McDonald’s at State Route 95 and a guy comes in and says, ‘Who’s got the Purple Heart on their license plate?’ I said, ‘That’s me’ and he asked if I had ever been on the Honor Flight,” Holtrey said.
When he replied that he hadn’t, Holtrey was given a phone number to call and then filled out an application and said he wanted his brother Keith Holtrey and friend Jerry LaFever to go along. The process took about 20 months.
The group flew out of Columbus at 5:30 a.m. and returned about 9:30 that night.
“When I came back home the neatest thing was there were hundreds of people at the airport. When I came home from Vietnam it was my mom and dad and my little niece was all that was there,” he said.
“I encourage all veterans to go on that Honor Flight. It’s really something.”
Holtrey enjoyed seeing the memorial walls, the astronauts’ memorial and John Glenn’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. He was accompanied by a guardian, Amy Ralston from Marysville.
Tennessee and Minnesota veterans joined those from Ohio in Washington, DC., getting a police escort through the city.
“I met Bob Dole, who was shaking hands with the veterans,” he said. Dole, 96, is a former U.S. Senator who served in World War II and was severely injured.
The veterans were given flags as a memento of the trip.
“They had posters and flags. People shake hands and tell them thank you,” said Cheyenne Peck, Holtrey’s daughter. “There were a few of the veterans that were moved to tears because they didn’t have that when they came home. It was a great honor for them.”
A FULL LIFE
After returning home from the war, he wound up working in the masonry business for 43 years with his cousin, Don Holtrey Jr.
“We just quit this year; sold the work truck and will sell the tools next. It’s the only way to get out of the business.”
He enjoys gardening and fishing for perch in New York with his three older brothers.
Holtrey has been married to Sharon for 48 years and have a son Shane, daughter Cheyenne, and 5 grandchildren.
Living on State Route 314 just a half-mile north of Highland Local Schools, they attend all of their grandkids’ sporting events.
Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. They transport our heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials.