Ken Beaton: Wrapped in warm memories
For the Nevada Appeal
Warning, this commentary may touch a special place in your heart.
The 15th Honor Flight Nevada boarded a Southwest Airlines 737-700 and lifted off the Reno Tahoe International Airport runway at 8:10 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, with 35 vets and 20 guardians. About 90 minutes later we landed at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to board our connecting flight to BWI, Baltimore Washington International Airport in Maryland.
As soon as our vets deplaned in Phoenix, they were greeted by about 200 smiling people of all ages clapping, cheering, yelling and whistling! Our vets received a “rock star” greeting with everyone extending their hand and said, “Thank you for your service.” As a guardian, I experienced a warm glow inside as the same greeters extended their hands and thanked me.
Before we boarded our plane to BWI, the SWA employee who records each person’s boarding pass read a poem written by a 9-year-old girl about her dad who served his country. Her poem mentioned her dad was not home for anniversaries, birthdays, performances, school plays, sporting events or “watch me do this, Dad.” Her poem caused my eyes to leak because I was a Coast Guard Brat for the first 15 years of my life. Dad was at sea and was unable to attend any of my high school football games. The same SWA employee looked each vet in the eye and shook his hand before taking their boarding pass.
At BWI we deplaned at 6:15 p.m. local time to several hundred people cheering and clapping. Now I know what Stephen Colbert, the Late Show host, experiences on Friday nights when he’s greeted by his cheering audience. People greeted each vet and shook his hand!
Saturday, Sept. 10, was the vets’ big day; wake-up call at 05:30 hours, breakfast at 06:30 hours and depart at 08:00 hours. No, we didn’t eat for an hour and a half. With 16 vets in wheelchairs, it took time getting each vet on the bus and their wheelchairs stored in the luggage compartment.
Motor Officer Keith Brennan rode a Harley and Sgt. Franz Ferstl drove a patrol car to escort our bus with sirens blasting to move vehicles from the passing lane, clearing a path for us wherever our bus traveled on Saturday — we had the VIP treatment.
At Arlington National Cemetery’s parking lot for the Tomb for the Unknown Soldier, we talked with several of the female Honor Flight vets from Columbus, Ohio — three buses of female vets. I spoke with a World War II WAC in a wheelchair. She proudly wore her brown Army garrison cap with a smile a mile wide.
Our vets had a special area to view the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After the guard took 21 steps toward us and did an about face, I noticed the guard’s hair was in a tight bun in the back. Sgt. Ruth Hanks is an Honor Guard.
Guards aren’t allowed to speak to thank our vets for their service. When Sgt. Hanks exited on the cement sidewalk, she scuffed the metal tap on one of her shoes once. This scuffing is the only way the guards can communicate to visiting vets, “Thank you for your service.”
At the World War II Memorial, I wheeled Jerry Bowers, a Carson City resident, from the bus to the entrance where we met Sen. Bob Dole. Though the temperature was 92 degrees with 80 percent relative humidity, Sen. Dole was sitting in a wheelchair in the shade wearing a white shirt and tie. He lost the use of his right arm in April 1945 while serving with the Tenth Mountain Division at Castel d’Alano located in northern Italy.
After Saturday’s dinner the vets had mail call. They received letters from relatives, friends and school children. Prior to our trip a friend sent me individually packaged stars cut from “retired” American flags. Accompanying each star was this statement: “I am a part of our American Flag. I have flown over a home in the USA. I can no longer fly. Sun and winds have caused me to become torn and tattered. Please carry me as a reminder that YOU are not forgotten.” Each vet and guardian received a star to remember this Honor Flight.
Before passengers boarded at Midway Airport, the SWA pilot and copilot shook hands and thanked each person from Honor Flight Nevada. Our four hour flight to Reno passed quickly.
At Reno Tahoe Airport a Washoe County high school ROTC color guard with four uniform drummers led the vets down the stairs to at least a thousand cheering, applauding people shaking each vet’s hand. Every possible group must have been represented. On the left side there were six Cub Scouts standing at attention giving the vets the two finger Cub Scout salute with several proud dads standing behind them.
After the welcome home speeches and songs, the best surprise was the Comstock Lode Quilters who gave each vet a lovingly made personalized quilt. In the cold months ahead, the vet will be warmly wrapped in his memories of the past 58 hours.
Vets, thank you for your service!
Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.