The Exponent was invited by American 1 Credit Union to fly along with an honor flight from Talons Out, a Michigan Hub of the Honor Flight Network. American 1 Credit Union is a primary sponsor of the Honor Flights and donated $25,000 to make sure as many WW II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans as possible could be on board. This story examines how that investment paid off.
Personal perspective, photos by Matt Schepeler
I was excited to learn I would be flying along with many WW II, Korea and Vietnam War veterans on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. on April 21. The trip would take us to many of the major memorials in the nation’s capital. It would include a police escort in D.C., meaning we would get to see as much in a single day as most tourists can see in two or three, and would include stops at some places many consider to be hallowed ground.
Honor Flights are designed to take veterans to our nation’s capital as a way of showing appreciation for their service. For many of these men and women, it is a “welcome back.” When most veterans’ service is complete, they are given a pat on the back – maybe – for their service and released back into the world. Besides paying taxes, most have little to do with the government once they have fulfilled their military obligations. Although most veterans do not brag about their service, they remember the friends they made, the battles they fought, and the sacrifices they endured even as the years slip past.
However, the scope of the flight, and what it meant to these men and women didn’t fully hit me until I was seated on the plane at Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport watching the veterans board. It was there, on the plane, that I fully came to appreciate that these were the men and women who willingly flew into harm’s way. One Jackson man, Bob Goss, served in both the European and Pacific theaters in WW II. Goss, who still fits into his uniform, sported a Purple Heart on his chest.
Another veteran told me he was lucky he wasn’t blown to pieces on a mountaintop in Korea.
I watched as a man with a Vietnam War veteran hat, clearly emotional about going, was rolled onto the plane in a wheelchair.
After boarding was complete, the only seat empty was next to me. Someone on the loudspeaker asked for a moment of silence, and Navy Petty Officer Jacob Munro boarded the plane holding a large photograph. The picture was of Petty Officer 3rd Class Gordon Grimm, a Korean War veteran who had died two weeks before being notified he was approved for the honor flight. Grimm’s lifelong friend and fellow Korean War veteran, Quarter Master Jack Welsh, had put in a special request to remember him on the flight.
Petty Officer Munro walked slowly down the airplane aisle as the men and women were silently respectful.
Respect is a common theme during Honor Flights. The veterans on this flight represented three wars and fought over portions of four decades. They were shown respect by the volunteers who were there to honor them, by strangers catching flights in the airports, and by dignitaries who came out to shake their hands and say thanks.
“You are all quiet heroes,” said Laura Pryor, vice president of marketing and communications for American 1 Credit Union, which sponsored the flight, during a meet-and-greet the night before. “You did what you did for all of us . . . then you just came home and went back to work. And you built a great nation,” said Pryor.
The Honor Flight movement started as an effort to get as many WW II veterans as possible to Washington to take in the WW II memorial to show them their appreciation. As the WW II vets have disappeared, more Korea and now Vietnam veterans are being flown. In our flight, 58 of the veterans were from the Korean War, 21 from WW II and six from the Vietnam War.
While watching these men and women board, it became clear that Laura Pryor was right. We were among heroes; quiet men and women who had served with honor, who were willing to die to thwart the tyranny of Hitler, to stem the spread of communism, and to fight for freedom around the world.
Some of these veterans may have struggled with the politics involved with the war in which they served. Even patriots have opinions, but they went to war anyway, knowing that while America isn’t perfect, freedom is worth dying for. At least it was for them. They defended it in the bitter cold of Korea, the humid heat of Vietnam and in the explosive battles in the South Pacific.
Of course, not everyone on the flight saw combat. One man joked that the closest he ever came to getting a Purple Heart was when he fell off a barstool in Germany and chipped a tooth. Another said he was stuck in Germany – quite happily, he added – during most of the Korean War. “That was fine by me,” he said. But he would have gone to Korea if he had drawn that straw, he added.
Honor is defined as “high respect, esteem, to regard with great respect.” During Honor Flights, high respect is given gladly and received humbly.
When trying to decide how to write this story, I opted to let the pictures tell the most of the tale.
But one point needs to be made: American 1 Credit Union should be thanked for their most-generous donation, which allowed the veterans to fly for free. This is a life-changing event for many of these men and women and brings closure to a chapter of their lives that most thought was forever over.
Throughout the day, they did not try to hide their smiles or their tears.
For that, it must be said, “Well done, American 1.”
This was a great investment.