Seventy-two military veterans from Virginia embarked recently on Mission #3 with the Old Dominion Honor Flight, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization created to honor America’s veterans for their sacrifices.
The Honor Flight serves the Richmond area, southeastern Virginia, along with the Outer Banks and northeast portion of North Carolina. Their mission is to “celebrate our American veterans and to transport them to Washington D.C. to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their sacrifice and service.”
And celebrate we did! This reporter/photographer was one of five to accompany those veterans to help capture the moments and memories created on this mission.
We began the celebration at 0600 hours (6 AM for all you non-military folks) at the American Legion Post 175 in Mechanicsville, where the smell of coffee and sausage wafted through the air. There was an immediate sense of camaraderie in the air as well, as the veterans donned their blue shirts and jackets and began meeting their gold-clad “guardians” (76 of them) whose mission it was to assist them throughout the day.
The smiling faces of the ladies from the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution greeted us as they served the breakfast buffet sponsored by Woody Funeral Home and Nelsen Funeral Home in Richmond.
The 380th Army set the tone for the day with their rousing patriotic music, then led us in the National Anthem as the Mechanicsville High School NJROTC presented the colors.
Our two buses from Mechanicsville then hit the road for our special adventure. It's hard not to feel special when your buses are escorted by the Hanover County Sheriff's Office, the Virginia State Police, and the patriotic motorcyclists from the American Legion Riders, the VFW Riders, and the Patriotic Guard Riders from Hampton.
Our first stop was the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, where we were joined by two more buses of Virginia veterans from Hampton Roads. Our veterans were surprised by the many flag-waving, sign-holding patriots who greeted them – creating a well-deserved sense of gratitude for these heroes. And, what a remarkable museum! The realistic exhibits evoked many stories that began with the words, “When I was in ‘Nam…”
Then, it was on to the World War II Memorial, in Washington, D.C. It was a gorgeous fall day to enjoy this beautiful mall that “honors the service of 16 million members of the Armed Forces of the United States of America, the support of countless millions on the home front, and the ultimate sacrifice of 405,399 Americans,” according to the National Parks Service.
The Memorial is situated within view of both the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, creating an impressive sense of continuity from our first president who guided this fledgling nation, to our sixteenth president who reunited a country torn asunder, to the heroes of our “Greatest Generation” who fought and died in a global arena to preserve those freedoms for future generations.
The next stop was the Korean War Veterans Memorial, where “our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met," according to the Parks Service. We were privileged to have several Korean War veterans on our mission, many of whom saw this memorial for the very first time. It is a moving experience to stand among the nineteen larger-than-life statues depicting the many ethnicities that came together to fight this war.
Why nineteen statues? Our bus captain, Sarah Coen, explained that the reflections in the black granite mural wall create the illusion of a total of 38 soldiers - symbolic of the 38th Parallel (the dividing line between North and South Korea) and the 38 months of the war. In addition, the etchings on the wall “represent those forces that augmented and supported the ground troops. The stone mural depicts Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps personnel and their equipment. The etched images are devoid of insignia or name tapes, making them representative of all who served. These images reveal the determination of the U.S. forces and the countless ways in which Americans answered the call to duty,” according to the Parks Service.
The reflections of the soldiers against the backdrop of those mural wall etchings create an ethereal – almost ghostly - sense of wonder as you immerse yourself in this memorial.
Our many Vietnam-era veterans braced themselves to experience the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – many for the very first time. The impressive granite wall that the NPS says “chronologically lists the names of 58,318 Americans who gave their lives in service to their country” can be an emotional experience for any American, but especially for those who witnessed the harsh realities of that war first-hand. Our veterans were surprised to learn that there was a special honor in store for them: custom-designed pins they received from their guardians in recognition of their service.
It was time to return to Virginia and the US Marine Corps War Memorial. The memorial “based on an iconic image of the second flag-raising on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II, is dedicated to the Marine dead of all wars and their comrades of other services who fell fighting beside them," according to the Parks Service. This seemed to be the ideal place to honor our Marine veterans by taking their group photo in front of their memorial.
It was a brief ride from there to Arlington National Cemetery where we experienced the impressive changing of the guard and the presentations of two memorial wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknowns. If you’ve ever been to Arlington, you’ll remember the magnificent façade created by the stairs and columns of the Memorial Amphitheater. What a great place to memorialize all of our veterans, their guardians, our four EMTs, and the Old Dominion Honor Flight staff with a group photo, so they will always remember this experience!
And it was an experience to remember! Doug Turner, a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Army, commented, “Great program. My hat’s off to the Honor Flight organization for this wonderful tribute to veterans.”
According to Bob Papas, another Army veteran who served in Vietnam, “I enjoyed the trip to D.C. that Old Dominion Honor Flight put together for veterans. I had not visited Quantico before and will visit it again. The stops we made at the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam War Memorials were emotional for me - realizing the enormous loss of human lives taken. I feel grateful that I was able to return home.
“The special mail call was something that touched me deeply, knowing that there were people still loving being an American and teaching our younger generation to be proud of their veterans and country.
“Old Dominion Honor Flight handled the trip with great expertise and covered all possible issues that might arise. I will be forever grateful to them and all the people who were volunteers; they made the experience one that I will never forget.”
Finally, the tired, but smiling veterans made their way to the buses for the journey home – but not before one last stop at American Legion Post 320 in Spotsylvania, where we were treated to a down-home BBQ dinner - prepared and served by the awesome folks at Mission BBQ.
The final leg of our journey saved a bit of “Honor Flight Magic” for our tired heroes, but we can’t share all those details, so that we preserve those surprises for the next Honor Flight Mission. That’s right, Honor Flight Mission #4 will depart on April 22, 2023. If you know a veteran or someone who would like to volunteer as a guardian for this or a future mission, please send them to the Old Dominion Honor Flight Application Page where they can register to become a part of this special family.
It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- a way to finally say, “Welcome Home” and “Thank You” to many of these veterans who never experienced those simple words to acknowledge their service and sacrifice to our great nation.