Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Honor Flight - Visiting the Memorials

For an overview of The Honor Flight and our experience leading up to takeoff, check out The Honor Flight - a Guardian's Perspective.

Upon landing at Dulles airport, the veterans were welcomed yet again by adoring fans. Police officers, soccer moms, retired gentlemen, babies, other veterans, and local Honor Flight volunteers all gathered to welcome us to our nation's capital. One woman recognized us as a father/daughter duo, and everyone started oohing and aahing. A young mother stood there, baby in her arms, tears streaming down her face as we strode by, unable to speak. I held back my own tears at the warm, moving welcome.

Our first stop of the day landed us at the National Air and Space Museum. A sweet WWII veteran served as our docent for the tour, his wit and knowledge of the aircraft in the museum uncanny. As we rounded the corner to the Vietnam aircraft, I spied the Huey Helicopter. "There it is, Dad!"
"Yeah, but no," he replied. "It's not the right one."
"What do you mean?"
"That's a Delta."
"And you didn't fly in a Delta?"
"Well, then what?" I asked skeptically.
"You mean Beta?"
"NO! I mean B!!"

With that settled, he contemplated the next aircraft on the tour, and started laughing.
"What's funny?"
"Aw. Them sumbitches."
"I don't know."

Aphasia is so annoying. If it bugs me, I can't imagine how frustrating it is for Dad. He's got a story to tell. He can remember it vividly, yet his brain can't formulate the words to relay his jogged memory. Encouragement helps.

"Try, Dad," I implored him. "I want to know what you're thinking." I watched his eyes dart back and forth, desperately trying to come up with another way to share his memory. "We were out in that," as he pointed back to the Huey.

"In your B model Huey?"
"On a mission?"
"And something happened with this other plane?"
"Yes. Them sons a bitches were out shooting target practice!"
"With you flying below them?" Suddenly I understood.

Somewhere near the Soc Trang Air Base, Dad took off on a mission probably with a few other helicopters and their crews, just doing their jobs, accumulating "flight pay." Maybe they were looking for something specific, or maybe it was a shoot-anything-that-moves mission. Suddenly a much greater firepower started buzzing shots over Dad's open air penthouse with no warning, likely from a much higher elevation.

"Well that's rather terrifying. What did you do?"

"We got the hell out of there!" he laughed. He looked back at the airplane, clearly so many other thoughts lost in his brain. But that's OK - he told me something new - something I don't remember him telling me before his stroke years ago when we bellied up at a bar and he ripped lose on everything he could remember about the war. That moment in the National Air and Space Museum was golden, and I'll treasure it forever.

As we headed back to the bus, I asked Dad what he thought.

"It was all right."

I'm guessing that's not the ringing endorsement the Honor Flight set out to achieve. At the end of the day though, Jack B. said he most enjoyed the museum. Proof that every stop means something unique to each veteran, and the trip truly provides something worthwhile for all.

After the museum we made our way to the National Mall complements of a police escort. I wasn't sure how Team Jack would react at the memorials. Given that neither man lost close friends during their service, I suspected they'd be more reflective than anything.

The entire group gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for a picture, and Dad immediately decided he wanted some photos with the Washington Monument in the background.
Meet Terry, in the blue, also a veteran but acting as a guardian on our trip. He received word the night before that a seat was available on the flight and he joined us to help out with Team Jack.
I wish I would have talked to Terry more throughout the day. I know he likes to play pickle ball, he served in the Marines, and volunteers in the Patriot Guard and the USO. There's so much more to him - and to Jack B. - that I wish I knew. I also regret not having more time to talk to the other veterans throughout the day. I know they all have stories like Dad's about nearly becoming target bait. Or like Floyd's about interactions with civilians, or like Richard's who drove a sergeant in his jeep every day through Agent Orange near the DMZ. I wish I had the chance to talk to every other veteran to learn their story and personally thank them for their service. Like many things in life, the really good moments leave us wanting more, perhaps wishing we could have given more of ourselves. That's how I started feeling in the afternoon. I wanted the trip to last longer, even though that wasn't feasible.

Grateful for Terry's help so Jack B. could move through the memorials at a faster pace, Dad and I took our time meandering through the Korean memorial.
As we contemplated the soldiers in the juniper bushes, their weathered, stone faces representative of the 5.8 million soldiers who fought in the three year war, a man approached us. He had olive-colored skin, a chiseled jaw, and piercing green eyes that unmistakably revealed deep emotion. He wore an army green hat embroidered with "Vietnam Veteran." He stopped in front of my dad, knelt to the ground, took Dad's hand into both of his and drew a shaky breath. "Thank you for your service," he whispered. A phrase we'd already heard multiple times that day, but this time it was different. He studied dad's face, lingered a little longer than usual, then stood up and looked at me. Tears welled in both our eyes, and for the first time mine spilled over. I opened my arms, and said, "Thank you for your service." We embraced, then looked into one another's eyes, studying each other's face.

He walked away. My dad, confused, asked: "Who the hell was that?"
"He was a guy just like you, Dad. Just a guy like you."
As I write this now, the tears flow. That man, that green eyed Vietnam Veteran, made an indelible mark on my soul. Did anyone thank him as he clearly struggled through the memorials that day? Yes, I did, but did anyone else? Did anyone ask him his story? Did anyone make him feel special? Do they still?

Our next stop took us to the top of D.C. to the Air Force Memorial. I knew absolutely nothing about this monument prior to last Thursday, but this is where Floyd told me about his service in WWII as we looked out at the Washington Monument in the distance. The memorial itself is impressive, and had it existed before September 11, 2001 the Pentagon might have been spared. Jack B. insisted I take a picture from a specific spot in the memorial so I could get the entire structure into my wide angle lens. Smart man.
After the quick stop at the Air Force Memorial we paused for an even quicker stop at the Women's Memorial, then continued into Arlington Cemetery to witness the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns (there's actually more than one unknown soldier being guarded there - fun fact). Vehicle access is not normally allowed in the cemetery, but exceptions are made for Honor Flight busses.

Arlington Cemetery is massive, beautiful, and remarkable.

But guess what? My dad left feeling critical. With some frustration and angst, and despite all the beauty he took in at that cemetery, "General Hill" left him discontented.

"They're all the same. They're all the same!" he insisted. I could tell he was getting emotional about something important to him.

"Who's all the same, Dad?"

"ALL OF THEM!" he hollered.

I searched my brain, worried I'd get fired as his guardian if I didn't figure it out quickly. "You mean all the dead?"

"YES! YES!" he shouted.

"OK, Dad. You excited to see the World War II Memorial?" I agreed with him to quiet him up, then changed the subject.

Later I thought about it. He didn't like the fact that some headstones had three or four stars on them, indicating rank. In his mind, once we're dead, we're all dead whether you were a private or a general. Perhaps there's historical significance in those roles, but once a person's served, they've all served. They're all veterans, and they all contributed to our freedom. While Arlington celebrates all who served, there's a section our bus driver referred to as "General Hill" where larger, non-government issued headstones hold three or four stars to honor the dead buried there, clearly differentiating higher ranking soldiers. That's what Dad took issue with.

I understand his angst better now.

We ended the day at the WWII Memorial, a giant oval constructed out of inconceivable slabs of granite with every state represented in pillars around a Pacific Pavilion and an Atlantic Pavilion. It was my favorite of all the memorials, probably due to the engravings on the walls.
I also loved the open-ness, the fact that it's flanked by memorials dedicated to our to most famous presidents, and how the setting sun provided the perfect light and atmosphere for the last stop of our trip.
A former mason contractor, Dad kept remarking about the giant slabs of stone it took to build the monument. He was tiring out and suggested we head back to the bus. But not before a jogger in a Navy shirt stopped and thanked him for his service. Used to the drill, he said "You're welcome," and I asked the gentleman what brought him to town.

"A conference. I'm special ops out of San Diego."
"You mean, you're a Navy SEAL?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes," he humbly replied.
"Thank you for your service!" I replied with open arms. No way was I letting that man get away without an embrace. Yep. I hugged me a Navy SEAL in the Pacific Pavilion of the World War II Memorial!

On the bus ride back to Dulles, I overheard many of the veterans talking about their favorite part of the day. The Changing of the Guard was a highlight for many. My guess is because it involved The Human Factor. Real people, interacting, up close and personal.

That is my takeaway from the the experience. The memorials are special, of that there's no doubt. But the structures themselves do nothing. It's what happens at those memorials between people that inspire emotion and deep reflection. The veteran who finds his friends' names on The Wall. The child who feels closer to her great-grandfather at the WWII memorial. The stranger who contemplates the faces of the men at the Korean memorial, wondering what it must have been like for our soldiers to traipse through rice paddies with their ponchos blowing in the cold wind.
The daughter pushing her father in a wheelchair, talking to another Veteran, overcome with emotion. The Human Factor would play an even larger part in our return home. Come back Friday for my final reflections on The Honor Flight.


To find an Honor Flight near you, visit
To donate to the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, visit and click on "donations."

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