As a volunteer with the Savannah Honor Flight Society, Don Poe pays his own way to assist often older veterans on free trips to Washington, D.C., to see the war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery. Friday morning, Poe will give the keynote remarks for the Bulloch County Veterans Day Observance.
A musical prelude by an Averitt Center for the Arts choral group is scheduled to open Friday's gathering at 10:30 a.m. in the Averitt's Emma Kelly Theater. The program of speaking, prayers, recitations and a salute to the services will begin promptly at 11 a.m. Hosted by American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90, the observance is free and open to the public.
Poe, 62, served in the Army from 1973 until 1976 as a military policeman. Originally from West Virginia, he attended MP school at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and was stationed afterward at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He and wife Mary Poe, married 33 years, have lived in Statesboro since 1993 and have four grown children, Marc, Matthew, Eric and Letitia. Matthew and Eric served in the Army, and Eric, as a combat medic, was deployed for a year to Afghanistan.
The title of Poe's Friday remarks is "Veterans, Families and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts." No spoiler alert is needed, because the speech won't be about Honor Flight, but Poe's volunteer work as an Honor Flight escort demonstrates his support for his fellow veterans.
"I'm extremely proud to be an American, and I find it hard sometimes to talk about my pride of the United States because I get choked up about it," Poe said. "How blessed we are to live in this country, and I think that a lot of our veterans get a kind of a bad shake in their benefits, the way they're treated, the way they're forgotten, and a lot of times they're kind of used as a tool every four years, every election campaign, and the Honor Flight is for me a very small way that I can give back."
Among others officiating on Veterans Day will be American Legion Post 90 Commander Charles "Skip" Campbell, Post Adjutant Bob Marsh, Chaplain Noe Klumpp and Averitt Center interim Executive Director Carol Thompson.
Honor Flight Network, a national, charitable nonprofit, has evolved from beginnings as a volunteer effort to fly World War II veterans to Washington to see the National World War II Memorial. The Savannah-area affiliate arranges trips by charter bus that amount to three-day weekends, with a very full day of sightseeing between a day to get there and a day to return.
As World War II veterans became fewer, Honor Flight organizations opened their excursions to veterans of other wars. Now, all U.S. military veterans can sign up, but priority for bus space is given to the oldest veterans and those who served in wartime, Poe explained.
"You don't have to have served in a combat zone," he said. "That's kind of a misconception. World War II, Korean, Vietnam, Cold War era, they all qualify, and we give preference to the older the veteran and to actual war veterans."
In three years with Honor Flight, Poe has served as an escort, assigned to two or three veterans each time and often pushing one in a wheelchair, for three D.C. tours. He is scheduled to go on another in April. Besides the trained escorts, a physician and registered nurse go on each tour, and there are usually about 30 veterans on the bus, Poe said.
Besides the World War II Memorial, sites visited include the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial, the Air Force Memorial and the Navy Memorial.
High-ranking officers, such as multi-star generals and admirals, often meet the tours and greet the veterans with handshakes.
Poe recalls the reaction of a World War II Navy veteran named John, whom Poe escorted in a wheelchair on his first Honor Flight trip.
"We were lined up and this admiral came through and was thanking everybody for their service, and John started crying, and I said, 'What's wrong?' and he said, 'The admiral shook my hand. I was just a seaman, but the admiral shook my hand.' He was just overwhelmed by the emotion that this would happen."
At Arlington National Cemetery, the veterans not only view the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns but also warrant a debriefing with one of the guards, and sometimes a general, who answer questions for half an hour or more, Poe said.
His friend Dan Foglio, 74, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, was one of the vets Poe escorted on an April 30-May 1 excursion. Poe pushed Foglio in a wheelchair part of the day.
Foglio also met generals and admirals and, at Arlington, visited the grave of World War II Medal of Honor hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy.
"I told them that I had three things in my life: when I met my beautiful wife, the birth of my four kids, and today," Foglio said. "I'll never forget that trip."
As senior vice commander of American Legion Post 90, Foglio asked Poe to be this year's Veterans Day speaker. Foglio has been lead organizer of the event for about a decade.
"He is a great American," Foglio said of Poe.
After his military service, Poe worked in civilian law enforcement in West Virginia before beginning his much longer career in sales and sales management. He has been employed by Patton Wallcovering for 28 years, the last 15 as district manager of a seven-state region, and owns Clean-N-Seal Pressure Washing.
Poe is a recipient of a 2008 Deen Day Smith Service to Mankind Award, a 2006 United Methodist Cross & Flame Award for work with children and youth and a Boy Scouts Award of Merit in 2005. Now a Connections Church member, he previously attended Pittman Park United Methodist Church and has participated in medical and construction mission trips to Guatemala, Haiti, El Salvador, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, and in relief trips to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and to two areas of Georgia after tornadoes.
A past member of the Statesboro Kiwanis Club, he served two years as fair chairman and four years as rodeo co-chair. He remains active as a Statesboro Food Bank board member and has co-chaired Feed the Boro.
For more information about Honor Flight, visit www.honorflightsavannah.org.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.