2018 Honor Flight: A Look Through a Bus Captains Eyes
October 12 Friday
Pre-Flight meeting, training, and meal at Slaton airport. I went through the guardian training again to meet some of the people ahead of time. I try to help and watch for any problems.
Being a bus captain this time made me anxious. While being familiar with most of what happens, I would be involved in some details that I had not been aware of. I handled the registration desk for my (yellow) bus so I got to meet and greet 1/3 of the veterans and guardians personally. Some pretty long lines but overall everything went smoothly and we had supper catered by Aspen Creek. Spent the night at Arvil’s and sleep was hard to come by with all the gears turning and knowing it was an early start the next day.
October 13 Saturday
4:15 a.m. at the airport to prepare for check in and deal with many details. Only know of one suitcase that was “lost” for a little while. I helped load the plane “back to front” but I was not in charge this time and was glad. It’s no fun ordering 80+ year old’s around to fill seats when you are trying to honor and respect them. This year we had a young gal doing this and “duh” – it worked!
About an hour into the flight we had mail call and this is always a joy to watch and see what it means to these guys. Maybe not as much as 50 years ago? We try to get letters from family members as well as from cooperating schools and others. One veteran’s mail packet was misplaced. Some of the staff quickly wrote him a “personal” letter and when we gave him these he decided that he “won” mail call. Later, we discovered that he was an alternate and had been added to the flight at the last minute so his mail packet was MIA.
Upon arrival at BWI, we had our usual issues with wheelchairs and walkers but resolved them quickly and enjoyed greetings from total strangers at the airport. On this trip it was my job to be one of the first off to direct our people to the restroom and the gathering place. I was thinking this was not near the welcome we had received previously, but after viewing video later I realized the fantastic greeting was behind me. It was one of the highlights of my first trip. If you ain’t the lead dog the view never changes!
We had a motorcycle escort from 6-8 Vietnam veterans from BWI into D. C. This was a new experience for our group and really neat. They really helped with traffic, though we still had to stop for red lights. On our first bus ride we (assistant bus captain Dale Hansard and medical Casey Davis) picked out our guardians to help us. At every loading and unloading we needed guys at the steps and wheelchair wranglers to load or unload. Our bus has the lift that we use for those that cannot handle any steps. I requested that those sitting near the front move further back at the next loading to enable the ones having trouble walking to not have to walk as far. Everybody cooperated with our needs and I will never take that for granted. This trip cannot happen without good guardians and staff! After receiving a text, we notified our wreath layers to depart the bus first. Of 4 WW2 veterans, 3 were on our bus, 2 in wheelchairs, so our work was cut out for us.
It was a beautiful fall Saturday afternoon and D. C. was crowded.
We got everyone assembled and once again I could sense the awesomeness of this memorial. It was a delight to see how the veterans responded to the memorial and the atmosphere. Bob Dole, of Kansas, was at the entrance and busy greeting visitors. Many of our folks got to shake his hand and greet him. I still remember when he was instrumental in planning and building the memorial that was dedicated in 2004.
It was here that one of our Vietnam veterans met up with a buddy that he had not seen in 50 years. Their families had set it up as a surprise to the other guy and we got to witness it.
Next stop was the Navy Yard where we laid a wreath and toured the 2 museums there. Both are fairly small, but well done and with lots of history. This location is fairly secluded and not a popular tourist spot so not crowded at all. This is where the U. S. Navy began back in Revolutionary times.
Following was the Air Force Memorial with its 3 arches that seem to reach into the heavens. As I understand it, being the AIR FORCE, they have no claim to the land so they go into the air. It is so tall it has become quite a landmark. We were told that had it been there on 9/11 it’s height would have prevented the plane from hitting the Pentagon.
Here our Air Force veterans laid a wreath and we reloaded.
The day had started early and everybody was exhausted. We headed for the hotel, got off the bus, and went immediately into a sitdown supper. Our after-dinner speaker had grown up in Europe during WW2 and had lots of interesting stories. I heard and saw mixed reactions as to how much it was enjoyed. He gave a book to each of our WW2 veterans.
During supper one of the guardians told me her veteran had lost his name tag. I helped her write his name on a sticky note on put it on his shirt. Another said their veteran only had one color shirt. After checking to see that we had no extra shirts I told him to wear what he had. Later I learned that he DID have the proper shirts. After the evening meal and program, we picked up luggage and keys and headed for a good night’s rest.
In the staff meeting we dealt with a missing walker, which turned out to have been covered up with a trash sack on a bus. Finally- end of day 1!
October 14 Sunday
Started out with a full breakfast and headed to Arlington Cemetery. This was the 5th time for me to be there and it always amazes me at the size of it, the number of graves, the tradition, and the solemnness of it all. Honor Flight buses are one of the few that are allowed on the grounds and we go right to the front of the Tomb of The Unknown Solider. That is the way it ought to be! 4 of our veterans get to lay the wreath at the Tomb. I get the 2 from my bus and escort them to our military liaison for instructions.
This ceremony has to be one of the most sobering things I’ve ever experienced. With the gently rolling hills, the amount of grass and trees, and the rows and rows of graves in line from wherever you are looking is almost overwhelming. Being there with MY veterans that I am getting to know can be very emotional. I often tell people that I probably worship more on this Sunday morning than they do in their church. One of the guardians told me later that here was the only time he had ever seen his 80 something year old Dad shed a tear.
Very near the Tomb is a section dedicated to military nurses. Our medical team always gathers at a statue there to get a group photo. I think this is a neat tradition for our staff.
On the edge of Arlington Cemetery is the museum for the Women in Military Service for America. From this spot, up the hill you can see the home of R. E Lee and the opposite way is the Potomac River and the capitol, and of course the Washington Monument. Here we make a short stop.
We head for the Marine Corps Monument, which is a giant statue of the raising of the STARS and STRIPES on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. This is a replication of the famous photo of Joe Rosenthal with figures that are 32 feet tall. Its’ size makes it impressive, as well as the famous story behind it. A list of all the places in the world that the Marines have fought and died is inscribed around the bottom of the statue. I had already been told to inform the solo Marine on my bus that we would only do a drive-by as we were short on time and the weather was rainy and later we were having a stop at the Marine Corp Museum. At the previous stop Peyton told me privately, that the schedule had opened up and we would stop! I told my Marine that I fussed so much on his behalf that we would stop. For a while I was his hero! As we reloaded we picked up a Firehouse sub and a bottle of water and took off for the air museum.
The Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian lives up to its’ name in size. It is huge and has to be to house so many planes. It will eventually house over 200 aircraft and over 150 large space artifacts. It is home to the Enola Gay B-29 bomber, Space Shuttle Discovery, and so many other famous aircraft. We had more time here than at most stops and are advised to take a docent led tour, which is what I chose to do. At all times I was keeping a close eye on a sizeable number of veterans for signs of needing a chair or water. I think this is one that I could return to and spend a couple of days at.
We head back into D. C. to do the “big three”- The Korean Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and the Vietnam Wall. All are in the same area in a U shape and are almost always crowded with tourists, lots of Asians.
At the Korean Memorial we marched in with bagpipes and laid our wreath amongst a mass of people. This memorial, dedicated in 1995 has 19 stainless steel statues, slightly larger than life size. They are on patrol, in full combat gear and anywhere you are in the area at least one of them is looking right at you. The Mural Wall has 38 soldiers’ images representing the land, sea, and air troops who fought there. The Korean tourists place their hand on the wall and say “thanks” in Korean. They like to have pictures made with Americans and some of us complied to their wishes.
We drifted over to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for our “official” group photo after which we sing God Bless America. The reflecting pool where Forrest Gump met up with Jenny was just in front of us. I was told that a movie was being filmed there at the time and we shut them down for 30 minutes or so. I was pleased that people were not constantly walking between us and our photographers. It’s always great when you see a show of respect for our veterans. We now move to the Vietnam Wall, undoubtedly the toughest for our group. On its grounds is The Faces of Honor, one being the Three Servicemen Statue and the other the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. The latter was sculpted by Lubbock native Glenna Goodacre.
Due to crowding only our wreath layers can go down as a group. The rest go down individually and mingle in the crowd. It was not uncomfortably crowded. This is a tremendously emotional time for many of our guys. We aid in finding names of buddies on the wall and see lots of grieving and remembering. In visiting with a lot of these veterans thru the last several years I have never had one tell me that he regretted having gone to ‘The Wall.”
We drift back to the buses and discover a misplaced veteran. After searching and questioning I discover him in the restroom under the Lincoln Memorial. He never considered himself as lost. This happens easily in a large area with lots of people milling about.
A good hot supper at the hotel was next on the agenda. Afterword a movie was shown that was about the soldiers that guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. It was interesting, but after about 30 minutes, exhaustion took over and I headed for the room. A surprising number of veterans and guardians stayed and watched. I always found mealtime a great opportunity to visit 1 on 1 or 1 on 6 with the veterans and guardians. On this night I visited with a schoolteacher / guardian from Ropes.
October 15 Monday
After bringing down our luggage we sat down to a full breakfast of bacon and eggs. Some realized quickly that what they thought to be cream gravy was oatmeal! Ha ha.
At Quantico National Cemetery, a first for our Honor Flight, we attended the funeral service and burial of the unclaimed cremains of a veteran. It is a full military ceremony with gun salute, flag folding, etc.
Very somber and respectful. Makes you feel good to see how our country treats it veterans. A cemetery employee boards our bus and explains their operation and answers questions as we drive through the grounds. From the bus, without unloading, we view the burial of the cremains from the funeral that we had attended moments earlier. Not far away we enter the grounds of the Marine Corps Museum. As we are preparing to unload, a Marine is beating on the bus door. As he enters he is screaming and shouting at us that he is the drill instructor and we are to address him as drill sergeant sir and to sit and stand as he instructs us. With all the intensity we quickly realize this is an example of life in the Marines. We will long remember this experience.
Our Marines lay a wreath and we have a fair amount of time to get a good overview of the museum. It is very well done and another one of those I would like to return to and spend a day or more. I get to overhear an interesting conversation between a guardian and an archivist about medal of honor winners. This time we’re on board with a bar-b-que sandwich in hand.
In route to the Capitol we gather the info on our veterans’ years of service. On this trip we have 687 years of service, with the yellow bus having 270 years of that. While on the bus our guide, Tim, explains what we can and cannot take into the Capitol and on to the floor of the house. Our representative, Jodey Arrington, meets and greets us individually at the elevator and then addresses us collectively when we are all are on the floor of the House. He speaks for 30 minutes giving the typical political spiel and addresses a few questions. For a lot of people this is near the top of the list as their favorite part of the trip. I’m of the opinion that all of the politicians are pretty much full of it and themselves. After leaving the House Floor we find the head and gather at the rotunda for another group picture. This place was busy and crowded and when most of the staff came in they were already backed up to the wall, we sit down on the floor in front of the wheelchair people. The staff usually tries to blend into the background, but the veterans seemed happy to have us in front for a change. Nice to be appreciated!
When we unloaded at the Capitol our guide left us for another gig so I covered a few housekeeping items and let everyone have 45 minutes or so to nap, visit, or reflect. Airports are a challenge for large groups and for elderly men and we had both, but we boarded and headed back to Lubbock with a minimum of trouble.
On the flight back, with another sandwich, there is lots of visiting, sleeping, and reflecting. The Vietnam veterans receive an official recognition that I think most of them will be very proud of. Lots of goodbyes and thank you are said everyone is looking forward to seeing family.
Lubbock does itself proud in showing up to honor these veterans with a return like they should have had 50 or so years ago. After one last trip to the head the veterans, guardians, and staff walk through the airport that is packed with family, friends, and supporters. We are led by the bagpipes through an honor guard, band music, posters, waving flags and well-wishers. I think most all of them will confirm that it was the trip of a lifetime.
We would like to thank Barry Sims, for writing and sharing this with us, as well well as allowing us to share with all of you.