Honor Flight takes locals on flight to remember
WASHINGTON – If you're afraid of flying, try doing so next to a veteran of the Air Force. When he leans over with a beaming face at takeoff and half whispers to you, "I love when they punch the throttle," his enthusiasm can't help but make you feel a little braver.
Last Saturday, I was honored with an invitation to travel to Washington, D.C., with Honor Flight Columbus to spend the day with a group of veterans from Ross County and throughout Ohio, documenting their journey with my camera and sharing their story with you.
At about 0530 hours, 81 veterans who served in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars reported to Port Columbus International Airport to board an airplane and visit the memorials built in recognition of their service and in memory of the service of their fallen and missing comrades.
On this trip, Honor Flight Columbus had 30 World War II veterans, 50 Korean War veterans (with three serving in both wars) and one Vietnam War veteran.
The Ross County residents who made the trip were World War II Navy veterans Paul Thurman, of Chillicothe; Ken Houseman, of Bainbridge; and Ben Valentine, of Kingston, along with Korean War Navy veteran Marvin Bridenbaugh, of Chillicothe.
'Old salt' arrives
As the plane touched down at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the excitement aboard it was palpable.
Despite most passengers only getting a few hours of sleep the night before, many veterans were too excited catching up with old comrades and chatting with their Guardians to rest on the flight.
As the plane taxied, a voice came over the airplane's speaker system and told the veterans to look out their windows. Suddenly, two fire engines parked on the tarmac with lights blazing rolled into view. As the plane rumbled past, the trucks turned on the hoses and created an arc of water for the plane to roll under.
Veterans cheered throughout the plane at the gesture. It was the first of many remarkable welcomes for the veterans to experience.
After the "fasten seat belt" light turned off and the Guardians and flight crew gave the OK, the veterans all made their way carefully up the passage from the plane to the sound of thunderous applause.
"Old salt coming through," an Honor Flight volunteer yelled to the huge audience gathered around the gate as he announced each Navy veteran's name and the conflict in which he served the country.
Awaiting the veterans were a line of U.S. Naval Academy students, a host of D.C.-based Honor Flight volunteers and many travelers waiting for their flights. The crowd smiled, waved, cheered and shook hands with all the veterans. No one walked through the line without being thanked for his or her service.
Korean War Army veteran Stevie Klopfenstein, of Ontario, near Mansfield, raised a chorus of laughs as she stopped to take a selfie on her cellphone with every single one of the academy students.
Several faces in the crowd wiped away tears as the awestruck veterans made their way out of the terminal and on to the waiting buses.
After everyone was loaded on, a siren began to wail as a police escort cleared a path through the busy D.C. traffic to get the veterans to their first stop on the journey: Arlington National Cemetery.
A silent tribute
The scuffling of highly polished black boots was the only sound to echo around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery as the veterans gathered around to see the Changing of the Guard.
Honor Flight Guardian Dave Schott informed the veterans beforehand that the guardsmen were not allowed to speak during the service, so to acknowledge the veterans, they scraped their boots along the ground as a silent thank-you.
Before leaving for the next memorial, many veterans lined up to have their photo taken next to the grave of Audie Murphy, a highly decorated World War II Army veteran, film star, songwriter and author.
Former Air Force Reserves nurse Annette James, a Westerville resident who was the Guardian for Thurman and Bridenbaugh, waited with the men in line before taking a couple of souvenir photos of each to remember their first stop.
Meeting a fellow hero
Whereas the atmosphere was solemn and quiet at Arlington, smiles and laughs kicked off the beginning of the veterans' stop at the World War II Memorial.
World War II Army veteran and former Kansas senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole was on hand to greet and take photos with all the veterans entering the memorial.
After taking their turns to meet Dole, Thurman said: "I hope you got a photo of that. I want all of (Bridenbaugh's) Democratic friends to know he shook Dole's hand!"
Soon both were laughing after women in period costume came up and planted bright red lipstick kisses on either of their cheeks. "Wait," said Bridenbaugh after James snapped a photo of him getting his kiss, "I wasn't ready! You'd better do it again!"
After getting several keepsake photos, James pulled out a binder with her notes on the memorial. She walked with the two veterans past both the Pacific and the Atlantic bas-relief sculptures at the memorial and explained what each one represented as the Washington Monument loomed in the background.
Thurman reached out several times to run his hands over the sculptures before they were too high up the wall to be touched. Walking past the Field Burial panel, depicting men burying a comrade overseas, served as a strong reminder as to why the monument was constructed.
As the group walked down and around the memorial to head back to the bus, several tourists paused to read the Honor Flight shirts and veteran ball caps the men were wearing.
Near the fountain in the middle of the memorial, a tall, blond woman walked up to Bridenbaugh, looked him in the eye, and smiled as she said, "Thank you so much for your service sir," before walking away. The smile on Bridenbaugh's face crinkled the lipstick kiss still on his cheek as she departed.
Two young men came up and began to talk to Thurman, allowing for several minutes of happy banter in the warm D.C. sunshine as other members of the Honor Flight moved around the monument.
Before heading back to the bus for lunch, James took Thurman and Bridenbaugh over to the World War II Memorial Registry to see whether Thurman was listed for his service.
Thurman grinned after James found his record, which read: Activity During WWII Boiler Tender 3rd Class. Served Aboard Destroyer Minesweeper USS Gherardi Dms-30 At Okinawa In 1945.
James took a photo of Thurman by the computer with his record to prove that his contribution to the war will be documented in the annals of history for generations to see.
In their own words
A surprise honor
After a light lunch on the bus, the veterans were driven to the Marine Corps War Memorialwhere they were in for yet more surprises.
The veterans began by cheering Marine veteran and Guardian Dave Schott on as he performed 48 push-ups for every star on the flag after delivering an oral history on the statue of the flag being raised by soldiers in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
After retreating from the statue to find a cool place to sit, the Honor Flight Columbus veterans were joined by another group of Honor Flight veterans from northeast Tennessee, and all were able to watch as the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon put on a special performance in their honor.
The synchronized steps, gun tosses and formations — performed in perfect, silent unison with the Iwo Jima statues rising up from behind them left all in attendance awestruck.
Several Guardians shared with the veterans that, in all the years and trips they've made, few have ever gotten to see this performance.
"That was really interesting," Bridenbaugh commented later. "That would be a job doing that every day!"
While the veterans were shuttled back over to the mall to take an hour to see the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial, it was the Korean War Memorial that had the most profound effect on the group.
"The main thing I wanted to see was the Korean War Memorial because that's when I served," Bridenbaugh said.
Thurman added that it wasn't until he was able to see the Korean War Memorial up close that it made its full impression on him.
"It really gives you an impact. It makes you realize more what you did for the freedom of our county, and I'd do it in a heartbeat if I had to do it again," he said.
A quiet, shady building housed the final stop of the day for the veterans: the Women in Military Service For America Memorial.
Veterans' faces were reflected in the glass cases containing photos, information and memorabilia about women in service from every war as they walked along one side of the wall. The other wall was lined with photos of female veterans from all branches of the military.
Three female veterans on the flight posed for several photos together at the memorial and reminisced about their days in the service with one another and their Guardians.
Thurman reflected on how much had changed since he was in the Navy.
"Did you know they have women working on the boats and the submarines now?" he asked.
His granddaughter is a nurse in the Navy based in San Diego, where she is receiving additional training with the Marines before she is deployed to Afghanistan.
The memorial highlighted the changes that have occurred since many of the veterans were active military personnel, but it also created an outlet to thank the women who served their country through times of war.
As the buses slowly rumbled back to the airport, a Guardian popped up at the front of the bus and shouted "Mail call" into the loudspeaker system.
All eyes looked forward as name after name was called out and the veterans were handed brown paper envelopes filled with what turned out to be thank-you letters from family, friends, students and strangers who wanted to show the veterans that they cared about them and appreciated the sacrifice they made while serving.
While some letters evoked laughter, some caused a few tears to be shed. It was a powerful way to end the trip to D.C.
A hero's welcome home
About 2100 hours, the plane carrying the Honor Flight Columbus crew touched back down in Columbus.
The travel weary veterans and Guardians slowly made their way off the plane and back through the terminal to the final and perhaps most fantastic surprise of the day: Hundreds of family members, friends and volunteers filled the entrance of the airport waving banners that read "God Bless America" and "Thank You For Your Service!"
A band played a medley of patriotic tunes as the veterans had their names, branch of service and conflict they served in read aloud once again for the crowd to hear.
As veterans names were called out, family members and friends rushed up to hug and kiss their veterans.
The wife of one World War II Navy veteran — Edward Wood, of Columbus — was so eager to see her husband that she surprised her family by standing up and out of her wheelchair to lean over and hug her husband as soon as she saw him.
Thurman and Bridenbaugh eventually were included in the roll call and were hugged, kissed and thanked by their family and friends.
"I didn't know so many people liked us!" Bridenbaugh joked.
"I didn't know we were so famous!" Thurman retorted.
The two laughed at each other's joke and melted back into the crowd to continue celebrating with their own families.
The Ross County veterans who went on the April 18 Honor Flight are:
• Chillicothe's Paul Thurman, who served in the Navy aboard the USS Gherardi in World War II and aboard the USS Missouri during the Korean War.
• Korean War Navy veteran Marvin Bridenbaugh, of Chillicothe, who served aboard the USS Fargo, USS Missouri and the USS Columbus.
• World War II Navy veteran Ken Houseman, of Bainbridge, who served in the Philippines and across the Pacific.
• World War II Navy veteran Ben Valentine, of Kingston, who served on the USS Currituck in the Philippines and the USS Ira Jeffery in the North Atlantic.
About Honor Flights
Honor Flight Columbus is a volunteer organization funded by donations from corporations, businesses and community organizations. No donation is too small, and we are grateful for each and every dollar that we receive.
There are a variety of ways to help Honor Flight Columbus in addition to holding a fundraiser, volunteers are needed to help with the morning and evening ground crew duties at the airport; administrative tasks in the office, being a member of the speaker's bureau, helping to spread the word about Honor Flight Columbus. Volunteers also might want to assist at special events, and help with the annual reunion on Oct. 24 this year.
The group always welcomes letters of thanks and gratitude for our senior veterans' "Mail Call," and letters can be mailed to Honor Flight Columbus, PO Box 12036, Columbus, OH 43212. Mark "Mail Call" on the outside of the envelope.
For more information on how you can serve or join an Honor Flight, visit HonorFlightColumbus.org.