Veterans seek memorials, find camaraderie on honor flight
The "fasten seat belt" sign dimmed and Pam Burlingame, president and co-founder of Show Me Honor Flight, sprang from her plane seat as she took pictures of veterans on both sides of the aisle.
Travel began early Wednesday morning for the 11th Show Me flight, which included 39 veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Conversation rose above the hum of the aircraft. Honor Flight is intended to show veterans their war memorials in Washington, D.C. But while on the plane anticipating their arrival, veterans didn't realize they'd find something more than monuments and sculpted stone.
"It's 110 percent (effort) in working and getting this accomplished so these individuals have something to talk about from now on," said Charlie Guthrie, a board member with Show Me Honor Flight.
This was the ninth trip for Guthrie, a retired Navy veteran who serves as Saline County's northern commissioner by day. Honor Flight is what he calls a labor of love.
"It's something that's very near and dear to me," he said. "My dad was a veteran of World War II. I do this in honor and memory of him."
The effort began as a push to particularly honor older veterans, as those who served in WWII now have an average age of 90. There were four in attendance this past Wednesday, including Ed Castle, of Carrollton, and Bud Worthington, of Alma.
"The World War II veterans, they're just a breed above everybody else," Guthrie added. "The sad thing is, each trip we go on, we have less and less" from that era.
That's perhaps the reason Arlington National Cemetery is Guthrie's favorite site.
"It's just amazing to be able to walk through the cemetery where thousands and thousands of heroes are buried," he said. "If I could go back to one place, that's where I'd go ... and walk for days."
The site is where Audie Murphy, the most decorated WWII veteran, and Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last living World War I veteran, were laid to rest. Buckles died at the age of 110 on Feb. 27, 2011.
While there, the group of Honor Flight veterans watched quietly as the guard clicked the soles of his shoes and took 21 steps in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Some stood behind the rope wiping their brows in the heat while others sat in wheelchairs awaiting the Changing of the Guard -- a reminder for many of honor, sacrifice and the cost of liberty.
The ceremony was one of several key stops during the tour. Some had visited the National Mall and Memorial Parks in the past. For many it was the first time. The size of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial no doubt caught their attention -- names of fallen comrades etched in their reflections in the black granite wall. The tour was somber at times, but celebratory overall as the 39 quickly went from middle-aged mid-Missourians to energetic G.I.s.
"I didn't think anything would look like I expected it to," said veteran Wayne Harrington. "I was very excited to go. I never felt so much praise."
Harrington spoke of the reception received throughout the parks, where strangers approached with open arms. Lines of students and visitors shook their hands, and veterans often found themselves in conversations with international tourists who were also visiting the Capitol for the first time.
At Baltimore/Washington International Airport, veterans were greeted by a cheering crowd as they walked off the plane and into the terminal.
"Welcome home," a woman said as she shook their hands on her way to another gate.
It was a reception the veterans didn't foresee, particularly those who served in Vietnam. George Turley powered-up a camcorder in the midst of strangers' "thank yous." Others stopped and shared their own stories and posed for pictures with the group.
"When we came back (originally), we were spit on," Turley, a Vietnam veteran, recalled. "We sure do appreciate this."
An inscription on the flagpoles at the World War II memorial reads, "Americans came to liberate, not to conquer, to restore freedom and to end tyranny."
For Show Me Honor Flight veterans and their escorts, reading those words wasn't merely symbolic. They arrived as men with unique pasts and missions, and left as comrades in a journey to peace and closure.