Editor's note: Times correspondent Bob Black, a resident of Sun City Center, shares his thoughts about the Honor Flight of West Central Florida he enjoyed in April. The organization strives to recognize U.S. Veterans for their sacrifice and service by covering all the expenses of a Washington, D.C., flight to visit and reflect at the memorials dedicated in their honor.
In a way, it reminded me of the Army. There we were at 4 a.m. at the airport, waiting for a plane. Hurry up and wait.
All 79 of us knew it well. Actually, it could have been any one of us who knew it, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, even a Coast Guard: 75 men and 4 women.
Except we were older now. Some in wheel chairs, many with canes. All of us with the pains that live in a body that has been somewhere and done something. In some cases, on a destroyer pitching in the Atlantic during World War II. In other cases, old soldiers who used to literally run up the hills of Korea or across the rice paddies of Vietnam
Now they found real pain in climbing the steps to the Lincoln Memorial. And that was where we were going at 0400 on a Tuesday morning in April.
We were all military veterans and we were there for the 33rd Honor Flight of West Central Florida from St. Pete/Clearwater airport to Baltimore/Washington Airport and then by bus to the Memorials in Washington.
Each one of us was assigned a "guardian." Men and women who volunteered to help us negotiate the many steps we had to take, some to push the wheel chairs of those no longer able to take those steps. Each of us with our own stories, each guardian with their own reasons for volunteering — an honor each paid $400 to ensure their veteran was safe and as comfortable as could be on this cold and raw spring day in Washington.
First stop was the Air Force Memorial. Viewing the Pentagon from the hill on which it is built gave thought to all those generals and admirals planning either our defense or their next war.
Our war(s) are over.
Next stop, the Lincoln Memorial. The steps leading up to personally visit with the man who saved the Union are a bear. Almost didn't make it. But once inside, many of us reading the Gettysburg address and/or the Second Inaugural that flank the giant Lincoln, found a tear trickling down our faces.
Lincoln, in those words, spoke directly to those of us "who had borne the battle."
Next, the Vietnam wall where tears of sadness and anger tore at us. Do old people cry more easily or do some memories just overcome us?
Here and there were high school tours on their spring pilgrimage and some of the kids, mostly at the urging of their teachers, spoke to us as we moved slowly from place to place. They had no memories, of course, and were going through the motions of being polite. When I was about 15, a friend of the family died from being gassed in World War I. Although that war finished only 11 years before I was born, I had no relationship to it, so I understand today's kids not knowing how many lives were lost or thrown away in Nam or Korea or World War II.
The kids shook our hands but you could see in their eyes they didn't understand why all these old people were slowly winding their way through their memories. But our guardians knew and guided us on.
On to the Korean Memorial. The 19 seven-foot stainless steel soldiers on patrol have an aura of danger around them. No matter where you walk around that triangle of men, one of the soldiers is looking directly at you.
I pulled patrols as an infantryman in that country of frozen winters and sweltering summers, so I went to the front of that Memorial and talked to the rugged-faced statue of the point man at the peak of the patrol and told him to be careful.
Don't trip a mine. Be very damn careful. Stay alert, stay focused.
The point man almost always finds the enemy first. Or the enemy finds him first. Not a good place to dream about growing a lot older.
The 19 men in that patrol are wearing ponchos. It's raining where they are, but you can't put a poncho hood on over your helmet. Screws up your hearing. So, you know cold water is running down 19 backs. It cuts into your concentration. One remembers these things.
We left the Korean War Memorial by bus to the World War II Memorial and, sad to say, this observer was underwhelmed. Four hundred thousand Americans and untold millions of Europeans and Asians were killed by one means or another. There are carved pillars named for each state, there are fountains and there are 400 stars in a wall, each representing 1,000 men who gave their lives for their country. I don't believe a star on a wall representing one thousand men who lost their lives is a memorial.
Not after you have admired the courage of that Korean War patrol in the rain. Certainly not after you have wept in frustration in front of that Nam wall with 58,272 names of young men who were sacrificed in a war we could not possibly win.
Back on the buses with police escorts cutting through homebound traffic for us as we headed for BWI airport. The cold rain that had threatened all day started to pour down, but it had held off just long enough for us to complete our "assignment." Many heads started to nod, but Mark Fosket, our trip leader told us two surprises remained.
The first came after the Allegiant Airlines A-320 (one of its newest planes) was in the air. It was "Mail Call!" Fosket and his team had contacted the nearest relatives of everyone on the flight.
The nearest then contacted the furthest relatives and most wrote letters of praise for our service and congratulations on the flight which were delivered to us on the plane. Grandkids, wives, children, neighbors, old friends.
Talk about emotional jolts out of the blue, I even had letters and origami from great grand nieces I've never met.
The final surprise came after we landed back in Clearwater. It was about 8:30 when we slowly deplaned and came down the ramp, tired and rumpled.
Then all hell broke loose.
There were at least a thousand people, probably more, lining our path through and around the airport. There was a band, there was a barbershop chorale, there were six young ladies in World War II Women's Army Corps uniforms (think of the Andrews Sisters singing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy).
There were balloons, there were old people and there were kids well beyond their bed times. There was a bird colonel from MacDill passing out memento coins. There were Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, there were motorcycle groups. There were flags, oh so many flags. And all of them reaching out to shake our hands and say, "thank you."
At least a thousand people who stood there for close to two hours as we deplaned and walked (or were rolled) past them. We were stunned and moved down that line shaking hands. And as they thanked us, we thanked them in return for turning out for us. It was an emotional wallop on both sides.
My editor at The Tampa Bay Times had asked me for two things: A personal account of the day and some reflections on how the trip inspired my sense of how America views the military today.
Thus, as we approach Memorial Day 2018, 100 years after the end of World War I, 73 years after World War II, 65 years since the armistice in Korea and 43 years after the bitter ending in Vietnam, I can report to you that this nation still honors those who answered the call.
We've stopped condemning our troops who fought in Nam. It wasn't their war or their choice. But for a while we tried to shoot the messengers to clear our own conscience.
The rest of our world, our United States of America, honors and remembers us: From the monuments to the guardians who guided and protected us (mine was a lovely and very powerful lady named Linda Hambley, from Seminole) to the people who stopped to talk to us to the thousands who cheered us late of an evening in April as we returned from the Honor Flight.
We, in turn, were honored to be a part of it.
The great author, Herman Wouk, may well have summed it up as we look at Memorial Day, 2018: "The beginning of the end of war," he said, "Lies in remembrance."
Contact Bob Black at firstname.lastname@example.org.