A healing spirit was evident during the veterans’ Honor Flight to Washington D.C. this week.
Many of those veterans came home to feelings of hatred, despite putting their lives on the line for their beloved country.
Some carried that bitterness in their heart for years. That animosity melted away with their VIP treatment in the nation’s capital. The vets were greeted with ovations and handshakes of thanks for their service. Their guardians gave them the VIP treatment as they carried their bags and supported them each step of the way.
At Reagan National Airport in D.C., the veterans were welcomed by Honor Flight attendants from the national organization. The airport staff announced over the speaker system the Kansas Honor Flight had arrived. Those waiting for flights divided into two lines and gave them a rousing ovation as they walked through the sea of supporters.
“Wonderful...we had a better reception at the airport than when we came back from Vietnam,” veteran Donald d’Augereau said. “It gave me goosebumps. That really got me.”
That patriotism rubbed off on the young guardians as well. Adam Herdman, who was the guardian for his grandfather, Richard Ryan, said this was an opportunity to pay tribute to the veterans, which did not happen decades ago.
“It is really cool to take the veterans and show them they are appreciated even though we may not always be the best at showing that,” Herdman said. “When they came back from Vietnam people were rude to them, spit and threw rocks [at them]. We can apologize what has happened in the past, even though it was not specifically us. We realize the sacrifice they made and how beneficial it was to the growth of our country.
“[The trip] has been heartwarming. Before we came, [I thought], they are veterans and what they did was nice. I did not understand to what extent it was until I came here with all the other people. It opened my eyes to how big of deal it is.”
Indeed it is a big deal. There were emotional moments shared throughout the Honor Flight’s visit to D.C.
Another huge hit was mail call. The Honor Flight organizers contacted each of the veterans family members to get them to write letters to the veterans. Grade school students also wrote letters of thankfulness. The mail was presented to each veteran after Monday’s dinner in a VFW hall.
For d’Augereau, who’s guardian was his granddaughter, Nakita, and Ryan, those letters melted away those feelings hidden in their hearts for decades.
“I got a bunch of mail,” d’Augereau said. “How did all these people know I was coming here? [Nakita] said, ‘I have all their phone numbers grandpa.’ From Nebraska and Texas. That was really neat.”
Ryan thumbed through those letters one-by-one on the airplane back to Kansas. Even handing one to Brian Spencer, the Honor Flight organizer, showing him an example of why this trip meant so much to the veterans.
Herdman saw another side of his grandfather.
“He is a lot more emotional than I thought,” Herdman said. “He does not show it a lot. On this trip, I noticed him showing it. It has been an experience that has brought us closer together. It connected my grandpa and I more than I thought it would.”
LEARNING FROM EACH OTHER
The intergenerational gap may have closed between the veterans and teens. It was a chance for the older generation to connect with their guardians.
Veteran David Cochran, who had his granddaughter, Madison Bridges, as his guardian, said matching a veteran with a teen was a neat experience.
“The biggest thing is the kids learn so much from it,” Cochran said. “It is almost more for them than the veterans. They have not been out in the world and done those kinds of things. We are a bunch of old men and have been all over the world.”
Bridges said this was a chance for the teens to show the older generation they can form a human bond.
“This restores my faith in my generation,” Bridges said. “Everybody in my generation knows we should always respect our elders. They are not always going to be around. We need to cherish them while they are here.”
The guardians received an earful of stories from the veterans. Some were embellished, but others were truthful and part of U.S. history.
Robert Stockman, a Navy World War II veteran and a spry 93-year-old, said the youth need hands-on experience to better understand historic events.
“It is amazing there is so much plain ignorance of what has happened,” he said. “They don’t realize why they are where they are today. I took a lot for granted with what I had too.”
Sadie Sellers, who was the guardian for Stockman, learned a lot about life from him.
“He has told me so much,” Sellers said. “It is hard for me to comprehend. I did not live through it and things are so different now than when he was younger.”
During their visit to the Navy Museum, Sellers was amazed by the details Stockman told her about World War II.
“It was crazy just knowing he was speaking from experience and not from a textbook or common knowledge that everyone has,” Sellers said. “He was speaking from experience. I like hearing more than what a textbook has to say about it or the news. I like the personal aspects of it. It makes it so much more real and even harder to comprehend.”
Sellers said this trip bridged the generations.
“We are more understanding of each other,” she said. “It is relationship you never lose. You get a close relationship with your veteran because you are with them the entire 48 hours. It is like a bond.”
BATTLE OF THE MIDWAY
The veterans were treated to a national celebration of the 77th Anniversary of the Battle of Midway on Tuesday, June 4. On that date in 1942, the Navy won its most historic battle. The Honor Flight had reserved seats for the program.
The Navy’s celebration included music from the Navy Band, a presentation of colors and remarks from Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations. After the ceremony, Richardson greeted the Kansas veterans and took a group photo with them.
Richardson praised the veterans for their heroism on that day 77 years ago and presented a proclamation and a salute to the five sailors — in attendance — who fought in the battle. He said we need to remember those great deeds that went on so long ago at the Battle of Midway.
“Such impactful moments in our history where our future literally held in the balance,” Richardson said. “You can talk about Midway forever. There is nothing more inspiring than to see the fight that is still in our veterans today. The fight to tell their story, the humility with the way they approach days like today. You talk them, ‘what is the big deal, I was just sort of there and did my job.’ Let me tell you, you did more than your job. You preserved a nation in a battle that has been called the most stunning and decisive blow in history of naval warfare. That description was given by British historian John Keegan.
“We also would not have won without the individual contributions of every sailor that was in that battle serving on any ship, any aircraft, and submarine in anyway.”
He illustrated how the sailors persevered in the battle.
“There are examples throughout this battle of people — sailors and marines — serving with initiative and toughness and the foundational element of this battle can be found in the bonds of trust and confidence that existed between everybody who fought there,” Richardson said.
The orders of that day were to destroy the enemy, he said.
“Inflict maximum damage on the enemy by employing strong attrition tactics,” Richardson said. “Be governed by a principle of calculated risk. Go engage the enemy and calculate the risk. There is a tremendous amount of trust and confidence capsulated in that terrific order.”
Richardson said the battle’s turning point came in a matter of minutes.
“In a span of five minutes, three Japanese carriers were reduced to flaming infernos,” Richardson said. “At that moment, the course of the war in the Pacific was changed forever. A fourth carrier in the strike group was engaged later to make a clean sweep — 4-for-4.
“This was luck formed by the tenacity and the fighting spirit and just the fortitude of everybody involved. We won because of our team. We won because of the tenacity and fortitude and initiative of our people.”
The veterans visited historic sites, including the Navy Museum, the White House, World War II, Vietnam and Korean War memorials.
Stockman said it was insightful to visit all the memorials.
“This is really a great experience because I witnessed it from afar [before],” he said. “Years ago, I was privileged to be brought here by a nephew to see all the sites. That was from the exterior. To see the interior, be accompanied, and explained what is here, and have a little visual, is a big privilege.”
He said being inside of the White House was impressive.
“Pictures don’t do it justice,” Stockman said. “You get a flash on the news. It is not like being there.”
Thomas David Craft, a guardian, said history was brought to life.
“The White House was cool,” he said. “What hit me the most was the Vietnam Wall. I took the time to walk by it. I did not read many names, but it really hit me. It made it real.”
d’Augereau said the Honor Flight was an amazing trip.
“This is a great program,” he said. “I did not have this opportunity when I was growing up. This opportunity for [the teens] to have a chance to take us around and for us to be with them, a lot of these kids did not know their veteran before this. It will create a bond. It will always be a memorable thing for the old guys and the kids.”
Sellers, who was a guardian on last year’s Honor Flight, said each year is memorable in many ways.
“I love all the veterans and hearing their stories,” she said. “Everyone is making it as fun as possible. It is not about us, it is about the veterans.”