States Visited

Sunday, November 16, 2008

It was my Privilege...

A couple of months ago my mom asked if I would go down to Washington, D.C., on November 15th and take some pictures. The father of a friend was being flown up from South Carolina as part of a group being recognized for their service in World War II. (Since I am not certain how he would feel about being the subject of my blogging I'm just going to call him John. Right away he insisted that I drop the "Mr." and just call him by his name.) Always looking for an excuse to go down to D.C. and wander among the memorials I told her I would be happy to do it.


When I woke up yesterday it was cool and rainy with the forecast calling for more of the same. Ah, crapper. I suddenly wasn't very excited about spending a couple of hours walking around in the rain...but I had promised.


The night before I had gotten all of the contact information and the itinerary for the day and let everyone involved know what I would be wearing so we could find each other in the crowd - a bright, Crimson #14 Alabama football jersey. John and I had a brief introduction a few years ago but it was in a social setting with a large crowd and I wasn't sure I would remember him. I figured the jersey would make me stand out in the crowd.

Their flight was to leave Columbia, SC, around 8:30am and arrive in D.C. around 10:00. From there they would travel by bus to the World War II memorial for a ceremony and lunch, then hit a couple more sites before going back to the airport for the trip home. I decided to take the train into the city so I could avoid the traffic and parking. I got off the train around 10:30 and began the walk to the memorial.


As I approached the memorial I saw three buses with full police escort pull into the parking area so I picked up the pace. On a cool, misty morning there weren't many tourists at the memorial but there was a small crowd gathered around the buses. I stood over to the side and watched and waited. Soon enough, a tall, lanky fellow made eye contact and made his way over to me. After a quick re-introduction we got started on two of the most memorable hours of my life.

We were just about to make our way to the memorial when I saw someone I recognized - former Senator and Presidential candidate and World War II veteran Bob Dole. He and his wife, Senator Elizabeth Dole, had come out to welcome the veterans to the memorial. After a few comments for the media he spent the rest of the morning taking pictures and sharing stories with the men and women that made the trip. John went over and snapped a few pictures and then we made our way towards the memorial. As we approached the memorial a middle-aged man wearing a Memorial Staff shirt approached us, extended his hand to John and said, "Thank you for your service, sir. Welcome to your memorial." It was the first of many lump-in-the-throat moments.


We began to chat as we made our way down into the memorial. I asked John if he had a good flight and he said, "Man, you wouldn't believe it. They've treated us like royalty. There was a big group at the airport to see us off this morning. There was a band and people shaking our hands and hugging our necks. I couldn't believe it. And then, when we got to Washington, there was a BIG crowd and another band. My goodness."


I did a little digging when I woke up this morning and found some of the pictures taken by various media outlets. I do not know the gentleman in this picture but this was the scene that greeted the veterans as they got off the plane in D.C. Family, friends, random people in the airport, representatives from the various branches of the Armed Forces and a marching band were there to cheer them on. I later heard one fellow say, "I haven't gotten a hug from a girl with the USO in more than SIXTY years!" You can go here for a slideshow of the day -


During our first walk around the memorial I asked John about his time in the service. He was in the Navy and spent his time as a gunner on civilian ships helping protect them as they carried goods around the world. He told me about days spent roasting in the tropical heat of the Pacific and other days spent fighting hypothermia in the frigid north Atlantic; about making the trip through the Panama Canal and about getting to take a swim when they could find the time. I asked if he was drafted or if he enlisted. He laughed and told me, "The only thing I ever volunteered to do was KP one time for a weekend pass to go see my sister! I was 'Selectively volunteered' into the Navy!" I asked if he had ever been on a ship before he was drafted and he replied, "Oh, noooo."



We continued to walk and chat and, as we did, the weather began to clear - the clouds drifted apart and a warm sun came through - unseasonably warm for November. We made our way over to the South Carolina column for a group picture and a flag ceremony. I was trying to find a good spot from which to take some pictures when I realized that the group of men, assembled togther and all wearing there "Veteran" caps, had caught the attention of everyone at the memorial.






In just a few moments it seemed like everyone at the memorial wanted to come over and take a picture, shake a hand, or give a hug. It was one of the most spontaneous, emotional things I've ever seen.

After the ceremony I was teasing John about having so many people taking pictures of him all at once and looking like a movie star when a girl I would guess to be in her mid-twenties approached. She asked John what branch of the Service he was in during the war. He told her he had been in the Navy. She asked if she could give him a hug and he said sure. She reached up and held him for just a minute and said, with tears rolling down her face, "This is just the greatest thing. I just happened to be here today. Thank you so much for what you did for us. You guys are all heroes. Thank you so very much." I was speechless. John was speechless. Wow! This was going on all around me. I saw a young Marine Lieutenant lending his arm to a man wearing a Marine pin. Semper Fidelis - Always faithful. I later learned that the gentleman was one of the very first black men to serve in the Marine Corp. A family of four that looked to be out for a day of sightseeing had stopped to watch the ceremony. The children, without even really knowing why, were as still as statues. "Mom" had tears in her eyes. "Dad" stopped taking pictures and walked over to the closest veteran, extended his hand, and said, "Thanks for what you did for us." A young lady in Air Force blue and wearing the rank of Major was kneeling to chat with one of the men in a wheelchair, her hand resting on his arm, her eyes not leaving his. It was overwhelming for everyone. Sitting here this morning I get a lump in my throat thinking about it.

John and I walked and talked and took pictures as we made our way up to the tent for lunch. On the walk to the tent we passed Bill Dukes, the Chairman of the group that organized the trip. John had pointed him out to me earlier and told me who he was and about all the work he had done to put it all together. Just as we walked by one of the veterans approached Bill and tapped him on the shoulder. The old man, stooped and hardly able to walk, had tears running down his face. He reached out and pulled Bill down to him, put his arms around him and said, "I've got to hug your neck. Thank you, son, for doing this. I can't tell you what it means to me, To all of us." Bill just smiled and said, "Thank you. It was my privilege."

John and I chatted through lunch but then it was time for them to board the buses and head off to their next stop and time for me to go home. They made a brief stop at the Korean and Vietnam memorials and a short stop at Arlington for the changing of the guard before heading back to the airport for the flight home and a heroes welcome upon their arrival.

The organization that put this trip together, and others like it from all over the country, is the Honor Flight Network. This is a non-profit group that flies these veterans to D.C. for a day at the memorials, at no charge, as a small way of saying "Thank you" for all they did for our country. Their website is www.honorflight.org and their page for local chapters can be found here www.honorflight.org/regional.htm

I would encourage everyone to consider helping this organization through donations of time or money. It was two of the most emotional hours I've ever had in my life. A check from me will be in the mail tomorrow and I am looking into doing some volunteer work with them.

If you are interested in seeing more about the day:

There is a brief story with video here - http://www.wistv.com/Global/story.asp?S=9357966

Another, more in depth story with links to other articles about some of the men that made the trip can be found here - http://www.thestate.com/local/story/591637.html

And, finally, here is a link to the group that

2 comments:

Jason said...

Steven - The best post you've made yet. What an amazing day!

Brandon said...

What an awesome experience! I'm familiar with the work that Honor Flight does...just incredible. It is such a humbling experience to meet these folks. I've had the honor to meet a few over the years and without exception I've come away moved, inspired, humbled, and most of all, blessed. I'm so glad you got to expereince this.