One by one veterans from Sunday’s Honor Flight Nevada walked down a velvet-roped corridor led by a bagpiper and two Civil Air Patrol cadets holding the U.S. flag. The festive Scottish music filled the concourse with merriment as total strangers waiting for their flights moved to one side, many clapping for the veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm who had just deplaned.
Flanked by friends, family members and fellow veterans waving flags and holding colorful “welcome home” posters on the ground floor, the 32 veterans — some being pushed in wheelchairs — and their guardians smiled and waved to the adoring crowd; others stopped to give their loved ones a hug.
Since Honor Flight Nevada’s inception five years ago, each of the previous 18 trips capped a three-day flight for veterans who visit the nation’s war memorials and monuments in Washington, D.C. The program raises money and relies on donations to fly veterans to the nation’s capital to see the various memorials and monuments for the wars in which they fought. John Yuspa, executive director and founder of Honor Flight Nevada, said their money-making events held during the year pay for airfare, travel and lodging, all free for the veterans. Veterans from almost every community in Nevada — including Fallon, Fernley and Silver Springs — have flown on Honor Flight.
Yuspa said this trip was special for four veterans.
“Three men and one woman were selected to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” he said.
One of the veterans who assisted with the laying of the wreath was Richard “Mac” McDonald, one of two veterans from Fernley who made the Honor Flight trip.
McDonald, a Navy gunner’s mate 3rd class who served in the Korean War on the destroyer USS Black, said the stop at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was very emotional.
McDonald, who enlisted in the military shy of his 18th birthday, said he was overwhelmed with the outpouring of emotions and responses from the various crowds in the nation’s capital when the Nevada veterans visited the monuments and memorials.
“Each and every war memorial were all fascinating,” he said.
He said visiting the memorials resulted in feelings of joy for some veterans, while other memorials elicited feelings of remembrance.
Yuspa said another emotional event on this trip involved 91-year-old veteran Russ Brown, whose father died in 1930 as an agent with the FBI’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms division. Brown, who was 5 at the time of his father’s death, visited a police memorial where he found his father’s name inscribed.
Each three-day Honor Flight trip leaves early on a Friday morning aboard a Southwest Airlines flight and lands later in the day in Baltimore, where the veterans spend two nights. A motorcycle-led procession escorts the veterans to Washington the following day where they see the various memorials and monuments and then spend the evening sharing their camaraderie. Their return flight leaves Sunday morning for Reno.
Once they arrive in Reno and begin their short journey toward the escalators and elevators, the veterans see a line of owners with their dogs, all trained therapeutic canines that take the edge off travel.
“We provide interaction to the public, flight crews, TSA, people who work with the airport police,” said Debbie Harvey, founder and board chairwoman for Paws 4 Passengers.
Kay Wright stood with her male Australian Labradoodle, Vinnie.
“Our goal is to make it less of a problem or the passengers who are missing their dogs or coming back to their dogs,” she said. “There is a bond we are trying to help with.”
The homecoming at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport has become a favorite with the airport authority and hundreds of people who attend the ceremony.
“Our team loves supporting this operation,” said Dean Schultz, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the airport authority, after officially welcoming the veterans and calling the homecoming one of the most rewarding experiences. “Thank you very much for allowing us to do that.”
Many moving parts fall into place for the travelers including the support offered from veterans who have previously taken an Honor Flight back to the nation’s capital.
“I’ve been here for the last four years and made all of them except three or four,” said World War II and Korean War vet Gary Mouck of Carson City before the travelers deplaned. “I’m really happy for them.”
Mouck served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II and stayed in the military for eight years until he deployed as a sergeant to Korea in 1950. He took the area’s third Honor Flight almost five years ago. The Carson City resident comes from a military family as his father served in the Navy and his children have also served in the armed forces.
Sitting with four other veterans near the airport’s main entrance, Mouck said the homecoming has been a special occasion for Honor Flight alumni.
“We enjoyed our first trip,” added Gardnerville resident and World War II veteran Ed Gero, who sat next to Mouck.
Gale Phillips, whose father served in World War II, arrived at the airport several hours before her husband’s return. She crowded next to the corridor’s rope by a bank of slot machines where her husband, John, and others would walk. Once they saw each other, John moved toward his wife where they both hugged.
“I was crying, proud to see the crowd, the patriotism, the flags,” she said, noting that four generations of their family came to the airport for the homecoming.
John Phillips, who served in the Army during World War II, smiled and told her he enjoyed the trip. The 94-year-old veteran said he had served with then-Col. Paul Tibbets Jr. and other air crews before they left the United States for a secret mission. Tibbets was the pilot of Enola Gay, which dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945 after practicing its mission for months at the old Wendover Army Airfield on the Nevada-Utah border. Phillips’ guardian, Gary Silvestro, accompanied the Genoa man on the flight. He met the World War II veteran, one year ago, and they became friends.
Silvestro said the Korean Memorial was very moving, especially for him.
“The Korean War memorial was very lifelike,” Silvestro said of the soldier figures. “My dad was a vet in Korea.”
Carole Massie, a Korean War-era veteran who lives in Dayton, enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps and went to Ft. Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, where she learned personnel management. Massie’s first assignment took her to Ft. Riley, Kansas, and in 1955, she transferred to Germany, where she extended her enlistment until she left the service in 1956.
Twenty years later, however, Massie enlisted in the Navy in 1976 and was given the rank of a chief petty officer. She spent the next 20 years in the Reserves before retiring.
Going back to Washington was a dream come true for Massie.
“We went to so many things, but I wanted to see the Korean War memorial,” Massie said. “It was well worth it.”
Massie, though, didn’t expect a big homecoming awaiting the veterans at the airport.
“Many people welcomed us with flags,” she said. “I felt very welcomed. I was surprised with the number of people waving flags. It was fantastic.”
Clay Woslum, a fellow veteran and friend of Massie, said he felt “terrific” for her as she visited many of the monuments and memorials.
Before the honored veterans left the airport, they received a hand-sewn quilt made by a volunteer from the Comstock Lode Quilters for Quilts of Valor Foundation.
“What makes today special is we have four women on the flight,” said Marsha Strand. “Every single response is different, but we can see in their faces how much it means to them.”
Yuspa said Honor Flight Nevada is planning two more trips before the end of the year. The October flight will take World War II and Korean War veterans to the East, while a November flight over the Veterans Day weekend will focus on Vietnam veterans.