The Southwest Airliner from Baltimore, Md., was on time Saturday at 8 p.m. Inside Terminal 2 at Lambert St. Louis International Airport anxious family members, many with welcome home signs, and other greetings, waited for their loved ones. Elizabeth La Kamp, a professional singer who entertained with patriotic music and songs, created the mood and warmed the crowd on the upper deck of the terminal. There were many American flags. The setting was about as patriotic as can be found anywhere in America. The emotional grip could be felt, especially when the national anthem was sung by Elizabeth, and when Taps was sounded.
Coming home were 31 veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. They had spent the day viewing memorials in their honor in the nation’s capital. Most had never seen the memorials except maybe one or two on television. Each veteran was introduced to the cheering, standing crowd. They were directed to waiting chairs. Several of the seasoned veterans were in wheelchairs. It was a homecoming the likes of which they had never witnessed before. Before the evening was over, tears could be seen in the eyes of many of the veterans.
The homecoming was sponsored by the Franklin County Honor Flight organization, which is composed of other military veterans and volunteers. It was the 10th anniversary of the Franklin County chapter of Honor Flight. It also was the 50th trip to Washington, D.C., that the Franklin County volunteers sponsored. More than 1,800 veterans from the Franklin County area have taken advantage of Honor Flight.
Remarks like “It was one of the best days in my life” and “I never expected anything like this” have been heard from Honor Flight veterans. Many say Honor Flight is the only way they could have seen the memorials.
Honor Flight is especially rewarding to Vietnam War veterans. Finally, they are being thanked for their service during an unpopular war in which many veterans suffered insults when they came home. One Vietnam War veteran asked an Honor Flight official about going on a flight. His question, “Will people spit on us?” That happened to some Vietnam veterans when they came home. Insults like that are not forgotten. Honor Flights help to soften the hurt.
As usual, the buses carrying the veterans had a police escort to and from Washington. Also, volunteers on motorcycles, some who are veterans, were part of the escort. It’s impressive.
On the trip home, “mail call” is conducted. Each veteran received a packet of mail, most from schoolchildren, who not only thanked veterans but applied their own artwork.
A group photo in front of one of the memorials is taken. When the veterans arrive back in St. Louis, they are given a copy, along with an Honor Flight certificate, during the ceremonies at the airport. The computer age is great for this kind of speed in delivering a photo — Walgreens can be thanked for this service. Members of the Vietnam Veterans Association of St. Charles, Chapter 458, met the veterans at the arrival gate and they presented the photos, certificates and pins to the veterans. The Rev. Bob Blake, chaplain for the Vietnam Veterans, St. Charles, offered a thought-inspired prayer of thanks.
Honor Flight has so many supporters. It is given a group discount by Southwest. The Guardians who accompany each veteran pay his or her own way, $500. The veterans are given a free ride and free food on the trip. There are so many supporters that space does not permit naming all of them. One who is part of the program and should be mentioned is veteran Jack Poitras, Arnold, who played Taps, and assisted in other parts of the ceremonies.
We were honored by Honor Flight by being asked to give a short “welcome home” talk Saturday. Among others who were key participants in the ceremonies were Terry Sullentrup, the new president of Honor Flight, and another board member, John Harris, a veteran who is active in the VFW and Honor Flight. There were many others.
We should never stop telling veterans, “Thanks for Your Service.” The Honor Flight participants heard that often Saturday, perhaps for some it was for the first time.