‘Freedom isn’t free:’ Trooper Steve and News 6 photojournalist reflect on Honor Flight trip

From before sunup to well after sundown on April 27, Trooper Steven Montiero and News 6 photojournalist James ‘Goose’ Gosselin set off on a mission they’ll never forget.

Serving as guardians to veterans on an Honor Flight Central Florida flight to Washington, D.C., they visited the many memorials the area has to offer to honor our veterans, but even more importantly, they made connections with their assigned veterans that will last for life. They said it was one of the most touching assignments they’ve ever had, and that says something, especially for an Air Force veteran and law enforcement officer and another man who has spent more than two decades in news, covering the worst and best of humanity.

[READ AND WATCH: Trooper Steve and News 6 photojournalist Goose take Honor Flight]

So executive producer Tara Evans interviewed them on their experience; here’s what they had to say as they reflected back.

Tara Evans: Tell me about why you wanted to go on this Honor Flight.

Steven Montiero: I think for me, it’s kind of finishing my personal mission, you know, as a veteran that has served in conflicts myself, I haven’t even seen any of these monuments in D.C. And to know that while I was serving these men and women were the ones that set the standard and came well before I even was even born or considered even enlisting, to go on this assignment with them, I don’t think there’s a veteran out there that wouldn’t want to do something like this. And it’s cliche, but if we don’t remember history, it’s going to happen again. And if we don’t understand why they fought so hard for what exactly they fought, well then guess what, 100 years from now we’re going to be doing the same mess again. So for me just to look back and to remember this and document it, this will be something I tell my kids in 50 years.

TE: Goose, how long have you been in news?

Goose Gosselin: I have been doing news in Orlando for 28 years. I’ve never been to Arlington, I’ve only driven through D.C. I’ve always been a bit of a patriot myself, I put those that serve our country in the highest regard.

TE: What hit you the hardest?

SM: It was this underlining thought in my head, that there are still people within our community, there are still individuals within this country, that don’t get it, that don’t support that. That don’t take the time to gain the knowledge of what these men and women endured and why they did it. That was probably the heaviest thing emotional feeling I felt there. Because being in front of a wall with someone’s name on it, someone who at maybe 17, 18 years old, had to pick up and go, and then didn’t come back. But yet we have people here today that complain about everything we have. Meanwhile, their right to complain was defended by the names on those walls.

GG: The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is just that, it’s a burial marker that is held in the highest regard. It is guarded 24/7. The thing that stuck with me is you could actually see where the tappets on the shoes the guards were wearing had worn a path in the solid concrete. You could see that because they were so regimented in their process, that the exact line that they’ve been tracking for years is now engraved in solid concrete, that was that was pretty impressive to me.

TE: You had the unique opportunity to build a longer term relationship with these men because of the time you spent with them. What was that like for you? The chemistry getting along with Jack and Bryan, what was that like for you?

GG: Well, my guy was Jack. And he was a Korean War veteran. And he was very humble at first. And it took a while to to peel away the layers of the onion. But once I did, once, I know Steve was was getting into Brian’s head a little bit, once you get them to, I guess, trust you a little bit, it really changed the dynamic. They were willing to speak of things that are not spoken of. I know Jack, he referenced, one of his particular jobs when when he came back to the States was to handle the servicemen that had passed, the KIAs handling their bodies coming off from naval ships, and being received back into this country. To go into work, knowing that that’s your job that you have to do every single day, that’s a lot. That’s a lot to swallow. It brings that war home to you, eight hours a day.

TE: Steve, what about you and Bryan?

SM: I think my response a little different. Just because I knew of the environment vibe that I was about to walk into. Being a vet, there is a language we speak that is a little different than most because you don’t need to say anything. So merely going into that room when we had our pre-flight briefing and we got to meet everybody and all that, there was an instant connection in that room. I didn’t even meet Bryan yet. I didn’t meet Jack, I knew Goose was in the building. But running into other vets that knew I was an Air Force veteran, and it’s like you’re running into your neighbor real quick, quick discussions, really major connections. And then when I met Bryan, I knew him and I were about to get along because he was instantly smack-talking right off the bat. The both of them, both of our guys were and it took about maybe an hour of us sitting down at a table to really go, man, this is going to be an interesting time. And in throughout the story, you could see that, like, Jack, he’s a whippersnapper, this guy was sarcastic, he would shoot out an insult out of nowhere, that was just supposed to be fun. Bryan, same way. And I can tell you, the four of us have each other’s phone numbers. Now, I can promise you, there will be a nice manly steak dinner coming up here soon, because we’ve talked about it. So for me, I knew I had no worries, I really didn’t. I knew what that environment was going to be and how strong and powerful it was going to be.

TE: Steve, you got choked up a lot of times.

SM: These men are are telling me their stories. And to a lot of people, they cannot imagine what that story is like. They’re just, like, holy cow. This is incredible. For me, they’re talking to me and I’m there. I am physically, I can feel my boots on. I know what the sound of mortar fire buzzing over my head at 20 feet sounds like. I know what an explosion going off and the debris hitting my flak vest feels like. So for me hearing and seeing this 80,90 year old man, tell me this story that’s 10 times worse than anything I’ve ever experienced, and that’s something to be said, it’s hard to kind of keep it together. Because I understand exactly. I can smell Kevlar. I know what it’s like the diesel or jet fuel JPA, I could smell it, I can close my eyes, and I can bring myself there. Because I’ve done it. So when these men, you’re talking, and like I said, 80, 90 year old men and women, and they’re getting emotional about it. If that doesn’t jar a human, then you need to check your pulse.

TE: Goose, I’ve known you for almost 12 years now, not a whole lot fazes you. But you almost got choked up talking to me about all of this.

GG: Well, and once again, I have covered everything from you know, floods to fires to civil disturbance. I was there a few hours after Pulse was occurring. We were still hearing gunshots. It’s the worst of what mankind can do. And my job for the last two and a half decades has been putting that on TV. So it doesn’t surprise me. What did surprise me about this event was how humbling it. It was to know the brotherhood of servicemen, to know the sacrifices that they’ve made for my freedom, that a lot of the people that are even watching this are going to take for granted. But you should, because each and every day that you’re allowed to live the life that you choose, whatever that may be, is going to be because someone has fought and died for your right to do so. And that hit me hard. To anybody that has never been to Arlington, when you look across a sea of just white markers, and know that each one of those is a life. It is heavy, it hits your heart. And then when you look across the wall, the Vietnam wall is, gosh, I’d probably say 100 feet long. And the names on it are very, very small, maybe an inch. And there’s literally thousands upon thousands of them. And the sacrifices that each one of those individuals, those families, that they’ve made for my freedom, really, it touched me. I’m getting choked up on it now, I mean, Honor Flight, their motto, their logo, their saying is we don’t know them all. But we owe them all. And I completely agree with that. There’s, there’s absolutely no reason for anybody to not understand that freedom isn’t free. And it never has been.

TE: And Goose, you got to go to the reunion, and you said that was eye-opening as well.

GG: When we arrived back, that wasn’t the end of our, our trip, because as part of the Honor Flight duties that we were, we were given was to participate in a reunion that occurred two weeks later. And it was a very emotional experience because not only have you had enough time to absorb all of what has occurred, but so has your vet. And your vet has now come full circle as far as the emotions, they’re back on kilter. And it was very heartwarming for me to know that the connections that were made, once again, these were people that didn’t necessarily serve in the same tour of duty or even the same conflict but they had the same respect for one another and the fact that they were on the same flight, they were all on the same level and I guess that that brings to my mind all men are created equal.

TE: What was the best moment?

GG: There was an evolution that occurred over this trip, because we got to hear stories of Vietnam veterans, that on the paperwork coming back into the United States said ‘Do not wear a uniform’. That is how they were welcomed back from their service from dropping everything that they had to do in their life, making the sacrifice to go and do things for their country. They didn’t want to be there. But they did it as part of a service and a service to us. And when they came back, they were called baby killers. They were spit on. They were disrespected. And to have that be a stigma that that exists for 50 years, and then, when we were coming back, 11 o’clock on a Saturday night, we came down an escalator to 400-500 people with full marching band, dogs, banners, just full support of welcome home. And to see a Vietnam vet that was shamed for what he did in patriotic duty to his country, he answered the call. And to have to live with that shame of, this is how my service is perceived, to have to live with that for 50 years, and now see it come full circle with that welcome home that they deserved, that warms me. That’s amazing.

SM: One of the coolest things, but Jack, his vet, it was the craziest thing because we all got separated coming down. There’s just so many people. And I’m hearing Steve! Steve! And I look and I look and it’s Jack, his vet, and he’s hysterical. But he’s smiling, and his wife is there and his wife is crying. But there was no sadness. It was almost like they hit the lotto or something. Because she was excited that he finally got to do this. He was excited that he was welcomed home and she was there. And I was a mess after that because I got to meet her. I got to meet Bryan’s wife, everyone’s families were there, and that people, strangers, it was such an overwhelming welcome home. I think for them, it’s almost, ‘I’ve done a good job. I’m home now.’ They got it. They got their welcome home, that they didn’t back when they got home the first time and that was everything.

TE: How was it to do this together?

GG: He’s one of the few people that I know that has the same appreciation for the red, white and blue, the American flag that I do, as well as somebody that was always taught that you stand silently for the Pledge of Allegiance, you show honor, you show respect to Old Glory.

SM: When it comes to who I am and my patriotism. You can have your opinions. Yeah, we’re not perfect. But we’re pretty much as good as it gets. And there’s, it is not easy for me to sometimes keep that patriotism quiet.

GG: You shouldn’t have to.

SM: I shouldn’t have to, but at the same time, I think it’s pretty clear, I don’t care. I have a duty not only because I’ve served, but because of where I live. And that’s not going to change. And if they want to put me on another plane, Goose and I are ready.

GG: Any day.

If you would like to help a veteran in your life sign up for a free Honor Flight or if you’d like to volunteer as a guardian to go on one, you can click here to apply.

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