Forgotten No More

Here I am re-publishing my story of an Honor Flight I was able to go on in the summer of 2013 as a reporter for the Journal Review in Crawfordsville, IN. Honor Flight is an incredible program, one that gives veterans a chance to see their memorials in the nation’s capital free of charge, and one that I’ve been happy to continue covering at my job at the Herald in Jasper, IN. For more information on Honor Flight and how to get involved, visit honorflight.org.

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The moon hung high in the sky as 80 veterans of the Second Great War and those of The Forgotten War gathered together in the Purdue University Airport.

There they assembled inside a hangar, underneath the Flagship Detroit, the oldest DC-3 still flying, while enjoying biscuits and gravy from Triple XXX and each others company. This day that many veterans thought would never come, the day they are honored for their service in the United States military — some of them more than 70 years ago — was finally here.JR honor flight-1

Honor Flight staff and guardians ushered their veterans onto the chartered Miami Air 737 waiting on the tarmac, and after some brief announcements from the crew and a few jokes from the vets, the wheels were up and Indiana began to fall from sight. Next stop: Baltimore Washington International Airport.

The Mission

Originally conceived in 2004 by physicians assistant and retired Air Force Captain Earl Morse, the inaugural flight took 12 World War II veterans from Springfield, Ohio, to their memorial in Washington, D.C. The success of the flight bred the necessity for more flights, as more and more veterans began to hear of the program.

Within a few years, the Lafayette Gold Star Mothers caught wind of Honor Flight and decided to join in. In 2011, they became one of 121 regional hubs, one of three in Indiana, and took their first flight in 2012.

At a meet and greet the Sunday before their fifth flight, Gold Star Mother and Co-President of Greater Lafayette Honor Flight Pam Mow stressed the importance of honoring all the veterans that they possibly can.

“This is very near and dear to all of our hearts and we don’t think there is anything more important than honoring our nation’s heroes,” she said. “We hope that each of you has the greatest day visiting the monuments that were built for you.

“We will continue this mission until we have taken every World War II veteran, Korean War veteran and we hope to take Vietnam vets that want to see their monument as well. We’ll be around awhile.”

The Honor Flight

The flight took just over an hour. Many of the passengers, young and old, were feeling the effects of a 0600 call time as they exited the plane. But what happened next woke everyone up and set the tone for the entire day.

Out in the hallway of the BWI, the U.S. military past and present shook each others hands. An entire row of soldiers in the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division cheered and clapped as each veteran stepped off the plane, shaking hands as they made their way down the line. It wasn’t a planned event, in fact, they had arrived straight from Afghanistan just an hour earlier.JR honor flight-4

“They were just back from war. Many of them brushed their teeth, shaved their face and came down to greet us,” Montgomery County Veterans Service Officer and Greater Lafayette Honor Flight board member Joe Ellis said. “This was the first time we’ve had something like that and it was just incredible. It tugs at your heart strings.”

There is a bond formed when a soldier pulls on that uniform and heads off to war, and that bond was in full display. Both sides of the line thanked each other for their service and wished each other a safe trip, whether to see our nation’s capital or to the arms of an eagerly awaiting family.

“Those are the guys that deserve a handshake,” local Korean War veteran Bill Richmond said of the soldiers. “Now that war is hell.”

All day long, in the shadow of our country’s greatest monuments, the Honor Flight veterans mentioned again and again how special that moment was.

After a brief bus trip, the main reason for the trip soon came into focus — the National World War II Memorial. Many veterans and guardians alike paused outside the structure, soaking in the moment. As they walked toward the giant stone gateway, the memorial began to unfold beneath them. The giant bowl-shaped structure shone in the sunlight and its fountains reached for the sky.

Many veterans flocked for the Indiana pillar, taking pictures with each other and marveling in the moment. Others strolled around, breathing it all in, reading the inscriptions carved on nearly every surface.

“I’m just really impressed,” local Korean War veteran Charlie Homsher said. “It’s a massive monument, but I think it had to be. They needed a massive monument to portray that war. I think they did a beautiful job.”JR honor flight-8

Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelley showed up unannounced and chatted with anyone who wanted to. For nearly an hour he shook hands and listened to stories, taking pictures with almost everyone.

“What a great group of people,” Donnelley said. “It’s the least I can do to come say hi.”

The Korean War Memorial was next on the agenda. Coming from the celebration that was the WWII Memorial, this memorial was more somber, meant for reflection. Representations of soldiers from each branch of the military are forever on patrol next to a wall of granite with the faces of 2,500 soldiers etched on. When reflected, there appears to be 38 soldiers, representing the 38th parallel. So too were the faces of the veterans reflected on the great stone monument as they walked up and down, taking pictures and remembering their brothers in arms.

“It’s great. I enjoyed seeing that,” local Korean War veteran Tom McIntyre said.

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Many of the veterans gave similar answers, appreciative of the day but not quite willing to open up to the past. War stories were replaced by euchre strategy and practical jokes.

But on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Navy veteran Orland Hatfield spoke about his time in the Pacific during both World War II and the Korean War.

“They told us to go fight, so we did. It was an entire generation of boys out there and, let me tell you, war is a horrible thing,” Hatfield said. “Anybody who tells you they weren’t scared is lying to you. But we all had our part to do.”

Hatfield said he’s no hero, that the real heroes died over there. A sentiment echoed a dozen times throughout the day by other veterans. But every step of the way crowds gathered and gave them a hero’s welcome. They took pictures with small children and shook hands, each time with a smile from ear to ear. At the Vietnam Wall the long line parted and let them go first. Time and time again the people of this nation showed their true colors, thanking the men who helped protect it from tyranny and oppression.

“One boy came over and shook my hand and with the most somber face said to me, ‘I’m sorry you had to go to war.’ He was just so sincere, it meant a lot,” local Korean War veteran Dick Williamson said. Dick’s son Mark, who was his guardian, said moments like that made the day extra special for his dad.

“They were kind of forgotten when they got back from Korea,” Mark said. “I know it means a lot that today complete strangers keep coming up and thanking him for his service.”

On the way to the Air Force Memorial, the caravan passed a visual reminder of how precious freedom is. On the western side of the Pentagon, white stones stand out where the hijacked plane crashed into it on 9/11. Below the repaired section lies a small memorial. Towering into the sky directly in the flight path of that rogue plane now stands the Air Force Memorial, a gigantic structure with three large spires ranging from 201 feet to 270 feet jetting into the sky.

Below the memorial lies a portion of Arlington National Cemetery — 624 acres of sacred military burial ground and the Honor Flight’s final stop of the day.

In the heart of Arlington lies the Tomb of the Unknowns. A marble tomb completed in 1932, it has been perpetually guarded by members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment since 1937 for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In complete silence a large crowd gathered, giving up the best spots for members of the Honor Flight, to watch the Changing of the Guard. JR honor flight-26

“This is truly one of the most touching ceremonies that you can ever witness,” Ellis said. “The veterans always find it very moving.”

In a special ceremony bestowed upon very few visitors, Lafayette Gold Star Mother Dana Vann and two Honor Flight veterans had the opportunity to change the wreath at the tomb. With their hands on their hearts, each veteran’s eyes were locked on the wreath as a member of the Honor Guard played Taps. While a few may blame the slight drizzle that came down from the sky, there was not a dry eye when the trumpet went silent once more.

With that the day in Washington came to an end, but the trip was far from over. Harking back to their days in the military, Honor Flight organizers had one more surprise for their travelers.

“Mail call!” they shouted out on the bus, and began handing out packets of letters to each veteran from family members and local school children. Despite their obvious exhaustion from the long day, the vets perked up and thumbed through their letters.

“Dear Veteran,” many of them read, decorated with American flag stickers and smiley faces, “Thank you for our freedom.”

On the flight home, Homsher said that of all the moments throughout the day, meeting the soldiers just returned home from Afghanistan and mail call were the most special.

“Yeah, the mail call really got him,” Homsher’s guardian and travel companion Maxine Hockersmith said with a smile.

Back at BWI, before boarding the plane, a spontaneous rendition of “God Bless America” sprang up, first with the veterans and the guardians, then the whole terminal stood up and joined in. For a brief moment, it didn’t matter where any of us were going or where we’d been. In that moment we sang, and that was enough.

The Homecoming

It’s been decades since they came home from the war. Many have gone on to lead successful lives and raise happy families. Their war begins to fade into the history books, but they will always have those memories. They carry with them the good memories, as well as the unimaginable.

On June 24, the Honor Flight gave those brave men and women new memories to carry into the future, to help heal their wounds of the past.

Waynetown resident and Korean War veteran John Thomas said he will cherish the trip forever.

“They treated us like royalty all day long,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

At the Purdue University Airport a crowd of several hundred people gathered to welcome the veterans home once more. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans. A flash summer storm slammed the airport, causing the flight to divert to Indianapolis to wait for the storm to blow over. At around 11:30 p.m., nearly two hours after the planned arrival, the veterans stepped off the plane to giant applause.

Family and friends cheered each man and woman, waving American flags and giving giant hugs as they walked to the crowd.

“I really wasn’t expecting people to stick around after the storm. What a special moment,” Richmond said.

Honor Flight organizers had one more gift for both the veterans and the guardians — a custom medallion with the Honor Flight logo on one side and their veterans war memorial on the other.

Local World War II veteran Andy Robinson was all smiles after receiving his medal and American Legion Commander Rodney Strong, who is a Korean War veteran and Albert Knowling’s guardian throughout the day, was beaming as he walked through the crowd.

“What an amazing day. I hope I get the chance to do that all over again.”

One by one the veterans of the Greater Lafayette Honor Flight marched off into the night, back into every day life, but never to be forgotten for their service to this grateful nation.

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*****

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