Thank You. Two insignificant words can be the most powerful anyone can hear.
This summer, Wisper Internet has sponsored two Honor Flights of military veterans to Washington D.C. to tour memorials to American conflicts, different branches of the armed forces, and other monuments to the founders and defenders of our nation.
Last weekend a group of 24 Vietnam veterans and one 91-year-old Korean War veteran from Franklin and surrounding Missouri counties took their Honor Flight to the nation’s capital.
Fifty years after their discharges from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, these vets finally received the thank you many of them said they never received when they came home after their tours overseas.
As Wisper’s Public Relations and Advocacy Specialist, I was unbelievably lucky to accompany a veteran on this flight and serve as his “guardian” for the whirlwind 36 hours in Washington D.C.
We arrived at Lambert Airport at 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning and after a greeting from USO volunteers we made our way through security to our terminal for breakfast. We were on the plane and in the air around 8:30.
We exited our plane at Reagan National Airport to cheering travelers in the terminal and a high school band, football team, and cheerleaders lining the hallway from the terminal to the front doors before boarding our charter bus to lunch. At this early point in the trip, the vets and guardians were already forming friendships and the vets were exchanging stories from their experiences in Vietnam, which ranged from being a payroll clerk to flying nukes in a B-52 bomber.
While at lunch, I got the first indication that this trip was going to be incredibly special for the vets and the guardians as well. I quickly discovered the vets were eager to share their stories, which in many cases had never had anyone ask to hear them. Even more powerful was hearing the vets talk to each other and connect on their shared experiences both good and bad.
After lunch, our group of about 55 people headed to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia. A couple of hours were spent here giving the vets a chance to see aircraft they had flown in while in the service. This was also a fantastic opportunity for guardians to have a chance to get to know our new friends as well.
My vet was Rodney Norman, who served in Vietnam as a payroll clerk on a forward base. He lives in South St. Louis County and is retired after operating a residential garage door business for many years.
We departed the museum and headed to the Air Force Memorial for dinner and a wonderful view of the Pentagon. After some time at the memorial, our next destination was the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and a quick view of the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial. The highlight of the evening was our visit to the National Mall to view the nightly illuminations of the World War 2, Vietnam and Korean War, and Lincoln memorials.
Finally, the hotel and bed at 10 p.m. for a few hours of rest before a packed Sunday, starting with breakfast at 6:30 a.m.
Day two began with a visit to and up into the Washington Monument. At this point in the trip the vets and the guardians were forming friendships and a comfort level with each other, and the times spent in lines and on the bus became filled with laughter, jokes, and some ribbing of the Marine vets by the other branches.
Having focused on the Korean War Memorial the previous night, Rodney and I took this opportunity to visit the very somber Vietnam Memorial Wall. While there we located the name of a childhood friend of his who was killed in action which was engraved in its enduring place of honor.
We then made out way over to the Lincoln Memorial and found several of the others from our group taking pictures and referencing historic events that had occurred on the steps where we were standing and a few famous movie scenes as well.
Although Rodney had visited the sites before, he commented that when you are there it is hard to take it all in, because it seems like you are in a movie or a textbook. We boarded the bus from the Lincon Memorial and made a quick drive past the Capital building to the National Navy Memorial and museum on Pennsylvania Avenue, just a few blocks from the White House.
After a private lunch and tour of the Navy Museum, we headed to the Pentagon to view the 9/11 Memorial to the 184 souls who lost their lives at that location during the terrorist attack on our nation 21 years ago.
The simple memorial features winged-shaped benches and flowing water beneath each. Fifty-nine benches are situated facing the Pentagon to represent the victims of Flight 77. An additional 125 benches are facing outward from the impact point to honor those who were killed in the Pentagon.
In keeping with somber remembrances, our next and probably most poignant stop on the trip for the veterans was a visit to Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While here, the vets witnessed a changing of the guard ceremony at the tomb and they received a fitting, secret nod from the soldiers of the Old Guard while performing their duties. As the sergeant at arms is entering the tomb area, he drags the toe of his boots (equipped with metal taps) on the ground while walking past the vets as a tribute to their service, an extremely high honor.
Despite the gravitas of the ceremony and location, the vets’ spirits were high after being surrounded by their honored servicemembers in a very sacred place to our military and the country. We boarded the bus one last time and after circling the Iwo Jima Memorial honoring the Marine Corps and the raising of the American flag over Mt. Suribachi in 1945, we headed to the airport for the flight home.
On the trip home, the vets received yet another surprise, which is a tradition in the military and for all Honor Flights. As you may guess, while serving anywhere away from home, letters and pictures from home are welcome and craved. Long before the trip when guardians are meeting with their vets, they receive contact info for their families to have them write letters to the vets for their Mail Call on the plane home.
Once the Honor Flight arrived home in St. Louis about 9 p.m. Sunday night, the vets received a color guard escort down a corridor of a hundred flag-waving volunteers welcoming them home. This was followed by a surprise ceremony where each vet was recognized by family and friends and given a certificate and saluted by Navy JROTC cadets. There was not a dry eye in the room.
Since its inception in 2007, Franklin County Honor Flight has sponsored 2,000 local vets for trips just like these. The men and women who volunteer for these flights to honor veterans cannot be acknowledged enough for what they do. Two of the team captains on this flight have been on more than 30 flights over the years.
On a personal note, I want to say this was easily one of the most powerful, inspiring, and humbling experiences of my life. Being with all these amazing veterans and guardians for those 36 hours will never leave my memory.
Thank you to everyone and to Wisper for allowing me to honor these veterans and have this experience in my life’s memories. I certainly have a new and deeper regard for the men and women who left their everyday lives to fight in a far-off country to ensure the liberties we all enjoy today.