There are two trips I will never forget. The first is having the opportunity to take my daughter, Edie Grace to Disney World for the first time and experiencing that magical place through her eyes. The second was accompanying 23 veterans last month on an Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C.
Honor Flight allows soldiers to visit the war memorials dedicated to their service. For many, the trip served as a long overdue and proper thank-you for serving so bravely.
We came together as strangers, but departed as lifelong friends. The tears, the silence, the raw emotion allowed me to experience the memorials through their eyes. It was powerfully moving and tremendously humbling. It was not as much the words they spoke but the silence that spoke volumes.
When my good friend Don Poe asked me to consider traveling on an Honor Flight to Washington as a guardian, I really had no idea what I was about to experience. Don is a hard guy to say no to, especially as many community projects he has helped me with in the past year alone. I also thought it would be a great way to honor my grandfather, Herschel Grice, who was a World War II veteran who died before the WWII Memorial was completed.
The trip is coordinated by the Honor Flight Network, which is a nonprofit organization created solely to honor America's veterans for all their sacrifices. Honor Flight of Savannah started operating in 2008 by Lt. Larry P. Spears, USN (Ret) and his wife Marian, lead guardian, along with local area veterans, Tim Bulick, Luis Carreras and Paul Green.
Larry and Marian, along with the Honor Flight Network, have designed a program with a goal to take as many World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans as possible in southeast Georgia and South Carolina to Washington to see the war memorial dedicated to their service. Top priority is given to the senior veterans — World War II and Korean War survivors, along with those veterans of other conflicts who may be terminally ill.
Of all of the wars, it was World War II that truly threatened our very existence as a nation and as a culturally diverse, free society. Now, with more than 1,000 World War II veterans dying each day, the time to express our nation’s thanks to these brave men and women is running out.
On this trip, Don and I served as guardians for four local veterans: Commander Cliff Holt, USN, Korean and Vietnam wars; Corporal Edward Brussard, USMC, Korean War; Corporal John Sullivan, USMC, Vietnam War; and Airman 2nd Class Jimmie Alderman, USAF, Vietnam War.
The trip begins
Every detail of the trip is masterfully choreographed and designed to treat each soldier as the true American hero that they are. We began at 7:30 a.m. with a formal gathering at Hunter Army Airfield. During this send-off ceremony, military officials read orders activating these soldiers for one last mission. The mission is a “Tour of Honor” in our nation’s capital.
Hundreds of active duty military personnel, representing all branches of service, participated in the ceremony and send-off. They lined each side of the walkway from the building to the bus saluting and cheering on the veterans as we left.
We departed Hunter by bus with an escort from the police and a Patriot Guard motorcycle convoy. The send-off appropriately set the tone of how special these heroes would be treated for the next few days. The program was originally begun by flying the veterans to D.C. and back in one day. The Savannah chapter now does the trip by bus over three days.
“This allows us to handle the logistics so much better,” said Larry. “It is also more affordable, so we can take a larger number of veterans each trip. The trip is completely free for the veterans thanks to generous support of local businesses and individual sponsors. Every guardian pays their own way to travel in addition to volunteering their time. In addition to having a volunteer guardian for each veteran, we also travel with a full medical support team including a doctor, nurse and other medical personnel. We strive to make this a trip they will never forget and we have worked hard to remove any obstacles that may keep a veteran from experiencing this once in a lifetime trip.”
No time was more special to a soldier who was away from home than “mail call.” This was when letters from loved ones were distributed. An hour or so into the trip, Larry announced it was time for mail call. He then began distributing envelopes filled with letters from loved ones, friends and even school children honoring them for their service. These letters of love and thanks moved each veteran. The letters and the trip allowed each one to return to a time of youth, if only for a few days.
In their own words
In their words, I asked each of the four men from Bulloch County to convey their favorite parts of the Honor Flight trip.
“The letters were powerful. It was certainly one of many amazing surprises of the trip,” said Cliff Holt. “Even with the horrible weather, nothing could dampen this trip. Two of the most proud moments of my life were earning my Navy wings and marrying my wife Sue. Honor Flight allowed me the opportunity to reflect and celebrate the opportunities I have had in my life. However, none of us feel we are heroes. We responded to the call for our country. With youth and good health, we would all do it again tomorrow.”
“I was just a corporal, but to have two and three star generals and admirals saluting us was more than words can express,” said Edward Brussard. “Then, after the changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington, we were taken into a special room where the sentries met us and thanked us for our service. They explained to us how everything was based on the 21-gun salute, 21 steps, 21 second pauses. I always assumed the Vietnam Memorial was a flat wall. But to touch it and follow it down 10 feet into the ground and back up again. The exact depth of a grave. Very moving.”
“The magnitude of the Air Force Memorial was overwhelming,” said Jimmie Alderman. “Standing below it and looking up to infinity was very moving. I was looking forward to seeing the Vietnam Memorial, but I really was not prepared for the power and beauty of the Korean Memorial. It was raining and foggy, which made it surreal. From an artistic standpoint, it is so beautiful. Emotionally, it tells the story of challenge and sacrifice so many men faced.”
“The departure ceremony, hundreds of soldiers, many very high ranking officers, representing all of the armed forces saluting and cheering us,” said John Sullivan. “So many of my generation’s return from the Vietnam War was not so positive. It was a different time. For Vietnam veterans, this trip served as closure. They made sure we received the proper thanks and appreciation for our service that many never received. Seeing school children holding signs thanking us at the memorials was something I will never forget.”
It is impossible to express the power and emotion of this trip is so few words. I hope I have given you a glimpse of how special these trips are for our veterans.
If you are a veteran who served our country at war and want to learn more about the Honor Flight Savannah trip that is scheduled for Oct. 13-15, or would like to learn more about becoming a guardian or even a sponsor for a veteran, visit www.honorflightsavannah.org or contact Larry Spears at (912) 367-9020.
DeWayne Grice is Business Editor for the Statesboro Herald. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.