“Thank you for your service, thank you for your service” is repeatedly intoned with a mandatory handshake, but never too many times for the aging veterans escorted on Honor Flights from all over the country.
Four chartered jets descended on Dulles Airport the last Saturday in September. The one from Columbus contained 85 veterans of World War II, accompanied by 50 volunteer escorts, known as Guardians, who pay for the privilege of spending the day providing wheelchair power, plus other general services required by an average age of 85 plus. Slightly younger Korean veterans were also on the flight, for the last of the six 2012 excursions in late November, their numbers will predominate.
When I was called a few days after submitting an application, word was given that WWII service had priority, for reasons we all recognize. Hopefully, Vietnam service will be next to be honored, after too many years of being ignored.
The good times began at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m. when escorts began greeting passengers at Port Columbus, escorting them to a gathering area (not ashamed to say I took the wheelchair route; 50 of them were loaded onto the plane for use throughout the day) where both civilian and military personnel welcomed us with the familiar greeting, also helping dispense a breakfast snack.
This is where I met Lou Borth, a member of the local Honor Flight Board, ex-marine from the Vietnam era-and my motive power provider for the day. Cheering volunteers greeted us at Dulles, with again a volunteer contingent both military and civilian, plus many handshakes and thank yous. Both enlisted and officer military members volunteer their day off for this escort duty.
Three busses transported us to the World War II Memorial, with a motorcycle escort, later to the Korean, Marine and Navy Memorials, and of course the Vietnam Wall. This was my third visit to the WWII site, which is both overwhelming, monumental and grandiose – and provides an ideal site for honoring veterans of that conflict.
The Wall, in stark contrast, exactly personifies that era of national maladjustment-and recovery from it. We were united in what course to follow in 1941-45, as we have not been since. I suspect shameful actions toward our service personnel in the Vietnam era has helped the reaction now taking place, where we have come to realize how much we owe our armed forces from previous conflicts, and the all volunteer military now serving, with more than 4,000 of them killed in the last 10 years.
It has become a tradition for Memorial returnees to be visited by former Sen. Bob Dole, who lives at the nearby Watergate, too often remembered for other more temporary residents. Now in his 90s, former Lt. Dole almost single-handedly promoted the building of the World War II Memorial.
Badly wounded in the final West European push into Germany, he now has even less use of his arm and had to be helped into his seat, where more than a few war stories were exchanged with those who had fought in the same area.
First proposed at a time when most WWII veterans were reaching middle age, it came too late for about half them, who were gone when the Memorial opened eight years ago. Four thousand gold stars on one wall commemorate the 400,000 Americans who were killed in the Pacific and European theaters, 15,000 of them in the Battle of the Bulge alone, when that particular war was supposedly on its way to ending.
Even more sobering is the thought of 4,000 troops killed in the first 24 hours of D Day, for many of them their first day of combat.
10 o’clock that night saw a worn group of old men (plus several women veterans ) return to a roaring welcome by at least 300 people gathered at Port Columbus to repeat the thank you chorus: parents with young children, students, even the Knights of Columbus in full regalia, plus many, many currently serving military men and women.
It took another hour to get through that line, finished off by bagpipes playing Amazing Grace, plus a full-throated unison rendition of God Bless America, led by Bobbi Richards , who with husband Bill, must devote almost full-time to veteran recognition running the Columbus Honor Flight.
If you read this, are eligible, and have not already been there, call them at 614-284-4987 for Bobbi; 614-595-2806 for Bill.
World War II veteran and Worthington resident Bill McNutt is a guest columnist for ThisWeekNews.