What does it mean to be an American? This is a tremendously loaded question in today’s climate but sometimes, just sometimes events happen to you that make you re-evaluate your thoughts. You suddenly remember what is important, you remember people have sacrificed so you could have these independent thoughts. I had one of those life altering moments on Saturday when I was a Guardian for my father on the 42nd Honor Flight to Washington D.C.
For those unfamiliar with the Honor Flight program, it is an amazing organization that gives our Veterans of the World War II, Korean and Vietnam Wars a chance to visit their memorials in Washington D. C.
I had the honor of being on the 42nd Honor Flight on Saturday May 13th, 2017 with my father Steven Brown. We had 33 Veterans in total with 2 from the Korean War and 31 from Vietnam. In a twist of irony, it has been 42 years since the end of the Vietnam War and we were the 42nd flight with mostly Vietnam Veterans. We started the day at 2am and left St. Louis Lambert Airport bound for Baltimore Maryland. You could feel the excitement on the bus and the plane radiating from the Veterans as they were sharing stories from their service days. Upon arrival in Baltimore the plane was greeted with a water cannon salute to welcome them in. Once we unloaded from the plane a crowd of people were waiting to welcome them home and thank them for their service. I found myself choking up on this moment because the conditions they came home to were the opposite of what they were experiencing. I know this because when we got on the bus I witnessed tears being wiped from their eyes and hear them say what a different reception it was. I heard a Korean war veteran say that when he got home from his deployment he was handed a carton of milk and told “good job, now go to work”. My father, a Vietnam Veteran had to wear a wig and hide his uniform so he wouldn’t get spit on or called a killer. It’s hard to imagine this happening to these men, but it was reality. This one moment helped heal that scar that they hid for all those years.
We started our whirl wind adventure in DC escorted by an amazing Police Officer named Holmes. He made sure we got to our destinations quickly and with the honor the heroes on the bus deserved. We arrived at the Vietnam Wall first which was a sobering feeling. I helped my father find the name of his friend killed in action and saw the emotions in his eyes when he rubbed his name on the wall. We then moved to the Lincoln Memorial which was amazing, pictures don’t do it justice. The walk then took us to the Korean Memorial. If you have not seen pictures of this you need to. It’s simply haunting. My grandfather was a soldier during the Korean War and I remembered him talking about it and the statues captured all of the images he had described.
The World War II Memorial was our next stop on our adventure and the welcome wagon was their awaiting our arrival. There were school kids lined up with signs and people dressed in period clothing, the Veterans love it.
Now is that part of the trip that I knew would be the most emotional, Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Carlos, our flight captain, announced that this was a very special place and on rare occasions you got to hear taps played but that was rare. We were scheduled to witness the changing of the guard and WOW the gravity of that moment is hard to describe, you must witness for yourself to grasp it. While the changing of the guard was occurring we did get to witness taps being played not once, but twice. As tears flowed from my eyes, I glanced around at our Veterans and could see the moment happen in their eyes, then I saw a young girl sobbing and it made me realize that no matter who you were, young, old, civilian, veteran; it was a powerful thing to witness.
Typically this is the part of the tour that leads to the Iwo Jima Memorial, but since our escort was so efficient we got to see the United States Navy Memorial too, as well as the Pentagon, the White House, Supreme Court, Ford Theatre, the FBI building, House of Representatives and various other Washington Landmarks.
We then did arrive at Iwo Jima which was an iconic image that sprang to life. As you drive around it looks like they are actually raising the flag. Our next stop was the Air Force Memorial that also symbolizes where the flight crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. The most surreal moment of that monument was overlooking the crash site of the plane where so many Americans died.
Our tour of DC concluded with our departure from Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. As we sat there waiting for our plane I got to visit with many of the Veterans and the impact this trip had on them was unbelievable. These men had chosen to give up their lives to fight for our freedom in this country and returned home to chaos, but this trip made it right for them. I know that I am not going into a lot of details because this was a truly personal experience that I am not sure I am ready to share yet. I cannot speak any higher of this organization and their magical way of healing old wounds for this Veterans so they can have peace in their journey of life. I can’t recall anyone complaining about anything, no fighting, no politics, just war heroes sharing stories and healing old wounds. In two words LIFE CHANGING! I am truly blessed to have taken this journey especially with my father. So the one take away from all of this I want you to remember that if you have a war veteran in your family or you are a war veteran sign up for this. You deserve this experience. There are 363 people currently on the waiting list which is approximately 2 years and unfortunately 20% of veterans signed up will pass away or have a physical ailment where they cannot handle the trip.
So please take a moment today, quietly reflect on the fact you are doing what you are doing because of brave men and women like I had the pleasure to spend 24 hours with. Freedom isn’t free and far too often people forget that. Love from a soldier’s daughter, Heather.