Part 1: The anticipation of doing something rewarding and unusual can certainly take over your entire routine – checking out the organization’s website to learn more about what they do and how they got started, not knowing exactly what your responsibilities will be (thus the need for an orientation session!), what would be the appropriate wardrobe to be prepared for anything and comfortable enough for an 18 hour day. These are just a few of the things I have been thinking about since I learned I would have the privilege of being a guardian for the next Honor Flight on August 18.
I happened to be at a recent board meeting when two of the members were discussing the next event and of course I had to ask what was involved. One of the gentlemen who has been participating for some time shared that I could certainly sign up to escort World War II veterans to a day in Washington, DC – to see the WWII Memorial, check out other monuments and museums and then return home, everyone feeling great pride in spending such a day with our veterans. This was a natural next step for me, only I didn’t know it before last month – our recent journey of projects has taken us from working with outstanding citizens at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, to the courageous and caring team at Army Medicine and now our most recent work with the teams at the VA in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. This has been first hand knowledge in caring about and helping the experience for our country’s greatest generation of war heroes.
I’m so looking forward to the upcoming orientation meeting to learn more about this once in a lifetime opportunity – will certainly share more as this adventure unfolds!
Part 2: The orientation was all that I expected – and then some! Here was the chance to visit with 25 veterans and their family members as well as meeting the other guardians, many of whom have participated several times in the past. The veterans were charming and gentlemanly – some beginning to show their age so those of us with rapid fire speech patterns had to slow down just a bit and make direct eye contact to hold their attention.
The organizers and presenters that morning do all this for the love of what they are accomplishing – honoring our WWII and Korean War Veterans – and they do this all as volunteers. The process was well thought out and the materials and helpful information no doubt has come from trial and tribulation of what worked well and some things, not so much. For those who know me, it was certainly hard not to jump in and want to “assist” so with great control I managed to just watch and listen, and learn. One of the organizers could see that I wanted to help so I was given some tasks to set up the refreshments table and then they suggested I welcome the veterans as they arrived in the lobby. When I met my veteran, I learned he had served in the Korean War and he told me he was 85 years young. He served in the Army so I shared that my husband served in Viet Nam, also Army – already a first bond. His son and daughter-in-law gave me some good insight and background since “Duke” and I were going to be spending a very long day together – and one the really important instructions is to “never have your veteran out of your sight”. The best advice in the guidelines packet was “if you are doing all the talking, something’s not right!” Great advice since it is all about learning the veterans’ stories and that this day is all about them – I can’t wait for that opportunity to hear their stories.
Also joining the flight are two volunteer EMTs and it turns out one of their team is out in Clermont so I offered to pick her up and drive us to the airport – since she has been on several of these flights, I thought I could help a little by sharing my ride. You can just tell that she is all about making sure the veterans have a most enjoyable and safe day.
When my veteran heard there would be wheelchairs for each of them, whether they needed them or not, he wasn’t happy about that – he shared with me that he likes walking and really didn’t want a chair. I suggested he think of it as a lawn chair on wheels and I would just have it for him, just in case. And that if he really was not happy about it, then he could push me around during the day! Got a laugh out of him on that one. I can’t totally imagine how the day will go but it has to be one of those “once in a lifetime” events. I’ve been to Washington, DC so many times on business and have never taken the time to see many of the memorials – have driven by Iwo Jima, spent 5 minutes at the WWII Memorial so seeing it with Duke and the other gentlemen will be a thrill. We will witness the ceremony of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier so I will be packing extra tissues. Can’t wait to share some stories once we return!
Part 3: We made it – approximately a 20 hour day from the anticipation at the start of the day to the adrenaline rush prior to getting to sleep…and so worth it! This journey has so many story paths I may have to share them at a later date but suffice it to say everyone should get an opportunity like this – spending such quality time with a group of gentlemen ranging in age from 85 to 98, and gentlemen they were. Some were a little more forthcoming with their stories throughout the day, a few very reflective of what was taking place around them and all of us to a person absorbing the emotion without having to speak at times.
I have been to Washington, DC so many times on business, and taking a rare moment when possible to rush into a museum to catch an exhibit or two, or dash to a memorial and take a photo was the extent of my paying attention to all the city has to offer its citizens. I had never realized what I had missed by flying in to Reagan National, taxi cabbing to the hotel or venue, completing the work necessary and heading out of town. Seeing six memorials in one day sounds like a mad dash but we were able to cherish special moments at each location, staying a bit longer at a few because the story was more personal.
I have a new respect for our TSA employees – they honored our veterans at Orlando International with their own check in and it was not just a rush through but interested individuals sharing a moment to speak with each honored guest – wonderful interaction at 7 am in the morning! And did you know that the TSA has their own honor guard – I did not know that – the ceremony performed for our boarding the flight was top notch with an accompanying group of young men from the Coast Guard. They had also assisted us curbside as our guests arrived and organized the wheel chair brigade without a hitch. Americans always need to be a little competitive and we did have some fun with the Army poking fun at the Navy and of course the Marines wanted to take on everybody – such great spirit. And with a wonderful breakfast waiting for us at the gate, the power of something tasty always adds to the festive mood – breakfast in a wrap and tater tots never tasted so good!
Just as we were taking off, the Orlando Fire Department gave us the most beautiful waterworks salute – there wasn’t a detail missed. Flight time seemed to go so quickly – I had the good fortune of not only sitting with my veteran, Duke, but also had the company of Joe so no complaints about the middle seat this time around. They regaled me with stories – I learned about what I thought was the Frozen Chosen but it turns out that was a destination in Korea and a battle at the Chosin Reservoir – I have since done some research on this battle and the weather was brutal for our troops – Joe was there and Duke spent more time in southern areas of the country. Being married to a Vietnam veteran, I have learned more about that terrain, the encounters and daily routines of Vietnam, but had not had the chance to learn much about the Korean War, other than watching M.A.S.H. for years. My father and father-in-law were not very forthcoming on their experiences in Europe and Japan during WWII so it was only what we read. What a difference to speak to people who were actually there. When the landing gear starting moving into place you could just hear the excitement – for many of these gentlemen they had never been to Washington or if they did, the last time was in the early 50s. So now I could look forward to seeing everything through their eyes and really learn so much.
There aren’t enough strong words to describe the welcome as we came off the jet way and sorted out the wheelchairs. Duke and I made a deal that he would only have to be in “the chair” when we had to be at a designated point at a set time or passing through checkpoints but could certainly walk when we had more leisure time – he did finally agree and a good thing because the wave of Americans waving flags and clapping to welcome our heroes was overwhelming – bring tears to my eyes again remembering. People shaking their hands, hugging as we passed by and that was just at the gate. When we went through the terminal to head to our tour bus, hundreds and hundreds more from young children, high school students, military reserve groups from all branches were waiting to embrace the special group of 25! Flags, signs, flowers and of course my favorite, two service dogs wanting to sniff hello to everyone but they knew who the special guests were (of course I had to sneak in a hug from the whippet, Bramble – you know they are greyhound wannabes). Mind you this is Sunday morning at 10:30 and these wonderful people took the time to be there for us – absolutely outstanding.
As the guardians made sure the chairs were loaded in the bus and we took our seats inside and to our left the Coast Guard gave us a salute send off – such precision and pride! I think it’s time to reflect a bit …we will continue our journey when we arrive at the Air Force Memorial!
Part 4: With such a full agenda we began our journey to the first stop – the Air Force Memorial – you immediately saw strength and flight – the tall metal pillars did look like the contrails from a powerful jet. Most of us had never been to this memorial and the view from the hill was spectacular of the city spread out before us. Some great photo ops and back to the bus for our next stop. Along the drive we had an excellent box lunch with a few swaps and sharing of potato chips. We were now on our way to Arlington – this was going to be a very somber portion of the day but something we were all looking forward to since most of us had never been up close, and to be on time for the changing of the guard.
As we approached the entry gates the bus became very quiet – as we drove into the parkway, everywhere you looked there were rows and rows of small white headstones, as far as the eye could see – broken up only by larger monuments at some of the grave sites. When we departed the bus, there were strategic signposts to ask us to be quiet but that certainly wasn’t necessary for our group – you could feel the emotion and respect for where we were – a very special place with different meaning for each of us. We proceeded to the special viewing area for our group to observe the ceremony at the Tomb – a light drizzle falling made it even more somber, yet appropriate for what we were watching. As you observed the young military officers perform this duty, you saw the determination and pride in what they were responsible for – very moving. Before leaving Arlington, we listened to some of the stories of those interred and took some more photos before heading back to the bus for the next stop. Once again, the crowd on the bus was very quiet, each reflecting on the impact of our morning.
The next stop was the Iwo Jima Memorial – I think back on how many times I’ve driven past in a taxi, on my way to a meeting and never stopping to see it up close and personal – well now I finally had the chance and to share it with people who would care. It is overwhelming to stand at the base of this beautiful tribute and see the detail in which it was carved – really hard to put words to it. At each of our stops, the Park Rangers were very helpful in answering questions, sharing pamphlets and photos to remember our visit.
Now we were off to the big one, as our veterans called it – the WWII Memorial. I flashed back to the commercials done a few years ago by Tom Hanks, when he was helping to raise the funding to build this tribute to our veterans – how we were losing so many every year, who would not be able to receive the thanks from the nation for their service. I thought about my dad who served in Europe and my father-in-law who served in the Pacific – they would have gotten a kick out of a day like this one. Duke and I walked the perimeter of the memorial and saw his home state of Ohio with its own column and wreath and of course a great photo op! It was wonderful to see throughout the day how tourists and locals would reach out a hand to shake or a young child to say hello – very American.
This was now the portion of our trip where we had a chance to be a bit more leisurely in our walk and you know what that meant, no wheelchair for Duke. We walked along the reflecting pool and had a chance to visit with one of the Public Health Officers who welcomed us at our last stop – she and her daughter decided to hang with us through the rest of our day which was a delight for our veterans – we had grouped with two other pairs and the dialogue was great fun. We decided on seeing the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and most importantly, the Korean War Memorial. I won’t spend time sharing each of these, as they were all emotional but I must share our last stop. I had never seen the Korean War memorial but as you approach it, the only word to describe it is haunting. The soldiers have been memorialized in a grey green stone and wearing their helmets and ponchos, they were rising from the grasses and walking very somberly to the unseen – not knowing their fate – all captured by the artists in a very physical sensation. One of the most touching scenes at this memorial was having Korean tourists come and ask if they could have photos taken with the veterans and hearing them say as they shook hands, “thank you for saving our country”.
I’ll be back with a wrap up…
Part 5 – The Wrap: We were all very quiet as we boarded the buses for our trip to Reagan National – now for the return home with so much to think about from all that we had seen and shared together, meeting so many wonderful and caring Americans from all walks of life taking the time to say hello and shake a hand, to the new friendships with both veterans and guardians – we will always have this special connection.
You could see the toll the day had taken after such an early start at 0 dark hundred – but a good tired because of the sparkle in most everyone’s eyes – so much to absorb but time later for reflection. As we hit the concourse the majority of us thought a Five Guys Burger and fabulous fries would hit the spot – no matter what diet many of us were on – we could take a little diversion on this special day.
The flight home had a more quiet tone, a few seatmate conversations but many resting their eyes for the two hours ahead. Little did we know what we would encounter when we hit Orlando International Airport! As we exited the jet way, we were greeted by a lone bagpiper who was playing all the anthems of each branch of service – somber yet very comfortable. Duke and I had one more of our discussions on the infamous chair but this was a formation march through to the main terminal so he agreed to be “pushed”. I now have a deep appreciation for the community known as Central Florida – it was 10:30 on a Sunday night and waiting for us were hundreds of citizens waving flags, and banners – even a woman dressed as Miss Liberty herself – and I saw some faces I knew who as community leaders truly felt this was important enough to be there in person – fellow board members and associates – as well as many new faces I didn’t know personally. Channel 13 was there to cover the arrival and spoke to several veterans – Duke was one of those selected to share how they felt about the day. Searching for Duke’s family in this very large crowd made him a bit nervous but we spotted his son, who had been capturing the scene with his camera – photo ops everywhere!
We lined up for one more group shot and were reminded of the reunion a few weeks later where we would receive a DVD of the day. Everyone said their good byes with lots of hugs and handshakes – knowing we had just participated in something very special – and to this day, I am sharing emails with a few of the veterans (they have great senses of humor!) – and looking forward to hearing more of their stories.