By allyHM (Brutally Honest's newest guest blogger - welcome her!).
On Thursday, October 27, 2011, I was blessed and privileged to fly on Mission IV with Ocala Honor Flight.
Honor Flight is a national network of local “hubs” whose goal is to take every veteran who is willing and able to Washington, D.C, to see THEIR memorial. Right now, the focus is on World War II veterans due to their age and the fact that the WWII Memorial didn’t open until 2004. Most of these guys (and a few gals) would not be able to go without the support of Honor Flight, either due to finances or, most commonly, age and infirmity. Ocala has been flying missions since 2009. Mission IV took 99 veterans and 74 support personnel: flight coordinator, two logistics coordinators, two physicians, six paramedics, and handful of nurses and nurse practitioners, a respiratory therapist and a host of other volunteer escorts. The escorts and most of the “staff” paid their own way for the flight at $500 each. The veterans are not allowed to pay their way. The total cost of this Mission was $80,000, including a charter plane, three charter buses in D.C., food and keepsakes and other miscellaneous items. All of the money was raised in the local community.
Our day started at Ocala Airport which is large enough to land any aircraft ever built. Set-up staff arrived at 4:00am, escorts at 5:00am and veterans at 6:00am. After making our way through TSA, we took off at 7:47am. Loading 99 85+- year-olds, some with wheelchairs and needing to be literally carried up the stairs into the airplane by our paramedics, takes time. That was one of my jobs: to keep the loading going as smoothly as possible, mostly by loudly saying (over and over), “Get in, find a seat and get your fanny it in!” Our Flight Coordinator, Trey Adams, had a fantastic seating chart, color coded by bus - red, white and blue - so that made it fairly easy to coordinate as each veteran or support person wore a red, white or blue hat, and one of the assistant bus captains stood in the aisle with his copy of the seating chart making sure these guys sat where they were supposed to.
The flight up seemed short despite a medical emergency that a little oxygen we brought along took care of, and we were served a nice breakfast on the plane. We landed at Baltimore Washington International, and were greeted by the airport firefighters giving the plane a water curtain salute as we taxied between to water tankers (an honor usually only given to a retiring or deceased firefighter). After some minor glitches getting everyone and everything (50 wheelchairs, for example) off the plane and up to the terminal exit, we headed off in our color-coded buses. Forty-five minutes and a boxed Arby’s lunch later, we were at the WWII Memorial in a bit of a drizzle. Thankfully, Trey had the foresight to buy 176 rain ponchos. After a special performance of the President’s Drum and Fife band, an address by an active duty Lt. Colonel, and a brief address by Congressmen Cliff Stearns and Rich Nugent, we had about 40 minutes to just wander around the memorial. Most of the guys really seemed to experience some fairly intense emotion at the star wall, where each star on the wall represents 100 men who didn’t return. They seemed almost reverential while looking at this enormous memorial. As I looked around the oval, I could see escorts heads bent down to hear what their wheelchair veteran had to say. I heard several veterans telling their escort about the men they knew who were part of the number who didn’t return. I saw more than a few wipe away a tear. What an amazing way to bring closure to that time in these men’s lives.
After that, we loaded back up on the buses and headed to the Lincoln and Korean War Memorials which are right next to each other. I rode on the blue bus, and I asked a couple of the guys near me what they thought of the WWII Memorial. “Just fantastic!” said one. “Very moving,” said another. They all seemed in awe, humbled and grateful – all at the same time – that the country honored their sacrifice by building that memorial. Most of them were fairly quiet on the blue bus, having that faraway look one gets when one is remembering something from long ago.
A very short ride later, we were at the next stop and being unloaded to head to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a group photo. That was a bit like “herding cats” but we did get everyone together in fairly short order. Earlier, at the WWII Memorial, we found a wreath that had been delivered there by the man who started Ocala Honor Flight, Morrie Dean, who stayed home this time and organized the welcome back party (more on that later) – red, white and blue roses with a ribbon that read, “Ocala Honor Flight 2011. That wreath traveled with us to the Lincoln Memorial and was put in front of the group for the photo, along with the folded, encased flag that represented those who did not live to join us. After the photo, everyone was allowed to look around on their own for about 40 minutes. A very small number went over to the Vietnam Memorial, but most visited the Korean Memorial. A number of our guys were career vets who served in both WWII and Korea. We even had one that was active from WWII through Vietnam. I moved our wreath to the exit point at the Korean Memorial, and a number of guys had their photo taken with it.
Back onto the buses we went, and we were off to Arlington, snacks and water on the way. Everyone was a bit more relaxed and talkative on this leg. We had to wait about 10 minutes at Arlington as buses aren’t allowed in until 3:30pm so that they can conduct funerals – 25 to 27 per day. Even so, after we were allowed in, we drove by a funeral procession as it was coming to an end near the gravesite – a horse-drawn caisson indicating an officer’s funeral. The blue bus got rather quiet at that point and everyone tried to get a look. Once we arrived at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Trey was met by the relief sergeant, last name Skywalker (I am not making that up). He asked Trey to have the group assemble after the changing of the guard so that he could speak to them briefly. Along with about 200 other people, including a middle school group, we watched in reverential silence as the changing of the guard ceremony proceeded. Then, after the middle school presented their wreath, two of our guys were selected to lay the wreath we had carried around all day at the Tomb. Taps was played. So very, very moving – in fact, I’m tearing up again now while remembering that. Our two guys stood there, at attention, saluting alongside the escort guard.
Now, I have to relate to you that immediately after, one of those two guys – 88 years old - missed the first step going back up the steps with the escort guard and fell over backwards…HARD. There was a loud collective gasp of the 400 or so people who were watching. Our six paramedics, our medical director (an ER doctor) and our chaplain (my Anglican priest) were on him in under 15 seconds. Fr. Don prayed, the doctor did a quick neurological check and the paramedics sat him up. He had some bleeding from the back of his head which they patched up quickly, but he was otherwise fine! A bit of a headache, he said, but he had no other symptoms. Of course, the paramedics lifted him into a wheelchair after that just to be safe. The first thing he said as he was settled into the chair: “Where’s my cap?” He wanted his Honor Flight hat back, even if he couldn’t wear it. He waved that cap to the crowd, which was cheering at this point, as he was wheeled away. Normally, the guard on duty will step off of the carpet and quiet the crowd with an admonishment for not maintaining silence, but not this time. The guards were just wonderful through this little situation.
After the excitement, everyone gathered at the back of the Tomb pavilion where Sgt. Skywalker spoke to them. He spoke about what it takes to be a guard at the Tomb. It truly is an elite group. He then told these guys that he appreciates it when people thank him for his service, but that THEY are the reason he does what he does, that THEY are his heroes, his inspiration and the reason he loves his job. He openly admitted that he has a “soft spot” for WWII vets, and he didn’t want a single one of them to leave with allowing him to shake their hands. One of the most moving events of the day occurred at this point. As Sgt. Skywalker was making his way down the front row of wheelchairs shaking hands, one of these 85+ year old white veterans stood up out of his wheelchair and opened his arms to this 20-something-year-old black soldier for a hug. A hug! Sgt. Skywalker broke into a huge grin and reciprocated gladly, the two of them embracing in a warm, manly hug. Tears are rolling down my cheeks at this very moment as I type this (and again as I proofread it). It was truly a beautiful moment. Right then, the sun – which had been absent all day – broke through for a few brief moments. Fitting. Thank you for that, Lord!
Back onto the buses we went. Another snack and another bottle of water, and a long drive back to BWI thanks to the 5:00pm traffic in and around D.C. We got through TSA quickly and loaded up again, this time not so much color coded but making sure to have our head injury guy and our least mobile guys sitting near the front and near paramedics. We had a hot dinner served to us on the plane: meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas & carrots, along with a small tossed salad, a roll and a small piece of lemon pie. I thought it was a very American menu and probably “comfort food” for a good number of our guys. I sat next to a veteran on the way home, and Art and I talked quite a bit. He is a rarity, a marine who made it home alive. He told me that he’s actually a little bit younger than the rest of the guys because he enlisted at “16-and-a-half.” According to Art, they were so desperate to recruit marines due to the devastation among their ranks that you could enlist at that age with your parents’ permission. I asked him, “How was your day?” He said that it was fantastic, and he couldn’t get over how organized the whole trip was. He spoke about how tough it was emotionally at the WWII Memorial but that he wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. He choked up a couple of times talking to me on the way home, remembering those that didn’t make it and remembering how it felt to be so far from home but doing what needed to be done.
We got back to Ocala at about 10:30pm. Art and I happened to be on the port side of the plane, so we were able to see the terminal as we taxied up under another water curtain salute by local firefighters in tanker trucks. Flags waving. Music playing. Kids on their parents’ shoulders. What a sight! Art was waving through the window, trying to spot his wife in the crowd of what appeared to be about 1000 people – and this was at 10:30pm on a Thursday! As we unloaded the plane, there were local active duty personnel from the National Guard Armory standing in salute on either side of the stairs. They stood in salute for the entire time it took for the plane to unload, including the time it took to literally carry some of these guys off – more than the number carried onto the plane earlier that morning. City and County commissioners were at the bottom of the stairs to greet each veteran as he exited the plane. Veterans were directed to their color-coded table to pick up their keepsakes: a photo montage of their current photo and an old photo of them in uniform, a letter from their congressman and Mission IV dog tags. Then, they were greeted by their family members – wives, children, grandchildren – and went home.
Truly an experience I will never forget and an inspiration to keep plugging away as I work to raise funds for an inaugural Honor Flight Mission in April for WWII heroes that live in the area where I work: Lake and Sumter Counties, FL (Villages Honor Flight). These men and women deserve it, and it’s the least I can do.
You can find out more about Honor Flight at the national website.