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Expanded honor flights making sure that no veteran is forgotten

Veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam pose for a photo at the National WWII Memorial. Veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam pose for a photo at the National WWII Memorial.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On an Honor Flight, no one misses a chance to say thank you.

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Veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam pose for a photo at the National WWII Memorial.

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Veterans arriving in the predawn darkness at Asheville Regional Airport are greeted by a phalanx of smiling volunteers, invited to sign a banner commemorating their service and treated to free breakfast, courtesy of state Sen. Chuck Edwards and his wife, Teresa, who own local McDonald’s franchises. Teresa served as a guardian on the Blue Ridge Honor Flight that carried 75 veterans to Washington on Saturday to see war monuments and bask in appreciation decades after they wore the uniform.
Now 11 years old, HonorAir has its origins in a tiny upstairs office of Hendersonville drycleaner Jeff Miller, who had the idea to honor his parents’ generation by flying planeloads of World War II veterans to the nation’s capital. Miller had read about retired Air Force captain and pilot Earl Morse, who had begun flying WWII veterans in Ohio to the new National World War II Memorial in Washington.
The organization that Morse and Miller founded has grown beyond anything the most optimistic advocate for veterans could have hoped for. Since the first US Airway charter flights took off from Asheville on Sept. 23, 2006, the Honor Flight network has flown more than 150,000 veterans to the capital, making the old soldiers the center of attention on a day that is a logistical marvel of security, volunteerism and cooperation from government agencies. It’s not that the government bends the rules for Honor Flights; it has written new rules to accommodate them.
Veterans whisk through security, take off from and land at their own reserved gates and get showered by water cannon salutes from fire trucks as they taxi toward takeoff.
Everyone associated with an honor flight seems to have a funny crack for the veterans, followed by more sober words of thanks.
“I understand dirty jokes are being told on the plane,” Ken Petray, captain of our American Airlines Boeing 737, says over the P.A. system shortly after takeoff. “I want to remind you we have women on board. Oh wait, I’m being told the jokes are being told by a female Navy nurse.”
The veterans’ laughter fills the cabin.

* * * * *

HEADSHOT OF DAVIS

On the ground in Washington, preparing to pull out from Reagan National, Granger Davis, driver of the lead bus in the four-bus caravan, explains the liberation from traffic laws the veterans are about to experience.
“There are two types of motorcades in Washington, D.C.,” Davis says. “One is the dignitary motorcade, for the president, heads of state. And the second one is the Honor Flight motorcade that is escorted by the police. I was not being arrested when you saw me out there (with a police officer). That’s actually our motorcade escort. It’s a beautiful thing when a black guy can drive a bus and chase the cops.”
“Many of our Honor Flight veterans say they enjoy the monuments but the highlight of the day is us running red lights, us making illegal U-turns,” he adds. “I just want you all to know: the government clears us to do this only for dignitaries and Honor Flights.”
Davis’s more heartfelt message repeats a refrain that veterans will hear all day.
“School does not teach the lessons nowadays like they used to,” he says. “If you have grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, even young people that you spend time with, tell your story. It is such a sad thing when we’re quiet and don’t tell our story because when these kids get to school, if they actually hear about it, they can say, ‘My peepaw, my meemaw, my grandma, my grandpa — they told about it,’ because you were there.
“You are the greatest asset to this country. I don’t care what your political affiliation is. We are one. Amen? And I’m not worried about what you see on TV — fake news, real news. You make me proud to be an American. You make me proud to take my time on these Honor Flights. I love you for who you are.”

* * * * *

A typical honor flight day takes veterans to the Korean, Vietnam and World War II memorials, the Air Force and Marine Corps memorials and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. On Saturday, Rick Devereaux, a retired Air Force major general, handed out medals at each of the war memorials thanking veterans for their service.
A Korean War veteran, Roy Grantham, served in a MASH unit.
“We had all kind of casualties coming in,” he says. “I was an enlisted person, E5 (sergeant), trained as a nurse. I ran that 16 hours a day seven days a week.”
How about that the reception at Reagan National, with a brass band playing patriotic tunes and a gauntlet of well-wishers?
“It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced,” he says. “It put cold chills on both of my arms and tears in my eyes.”
Marine Corps veteran Ray Evans joined the trip as guardian for his 86-year-old brother, Charles, who fought in Korea and Vietnam.
Retired from the Highway Patrol and the Buncombe County sheriff’s office, Ray, 78, now lives in Durham.
“I went in in ’58 and got out in ’62. I got out about three months early in 1962 because John Kennedy was cutting the budget,” he says. “When we got out, we still called (Vietnam) French Indochina.”
His favorite part of the trip?
“Talking to these veterans,” he says. “Seeing the camaraderie between fellas that have never seen each other before. They have an automatic friendship. And I wonder if you gotta go into the military to find that friendship and camaraderie and acceptance of other people. … It’s not very prevalent in the workplace.”

* * * * *

If wars changed over the last half of the 20th century in how they were fought and how they were perceived at home, the bond of a combat unit is forever.
HonorAir transformed into Blue Ridge Honor Flight last year in order to expand, first to Korea and now Vietnam.
Devereaux, the retired general who is also a member of the Honor Flight board, told veterans at the Vietnam memorial that they were in the vanguard of the next phase of the organization. Ignored or worse, scorned, upon their homecoming in the late ’60s and ’70s, Vietnam veterans are being recruited to enjoy a day of gratitude.
“The next one I think will be probably predominantly Vietnam,” Miller says. “They’re a little bit reluctant to do it but when they start thinking about how they get to spend the day with folks that were doing the same thing they were it changes it. It seems like after Desert Storm, war on terror, folks came back to much more of a hero’s welcome and I think it’s a lot because of what happened to Vietnam veterans. People don’t ever want to see that repeated again. I think they saw that and they’re a little more open.”

* * * * *

PHOTO OF RACHEL DiStasio

Saturday’s flight carried 75 veterans and 60 wheelchairs to Washington. Guardians, team captains, physicians, EMTs and even trained counselors — all volunteers — outnumbered the old soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
Rachel DiStasio was standing in a greeting line of volunteers holding a hand-lettered sign that said “We Love Our Veterans!” She’s a member of the Honor Flight Ground Crew — volunteers from the Washington area who serve as guardians.
Her father served in the Army and her grandfather served in World War II. A high school world history teacher in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, DiStasio read about HonorAir on Facebook.
“I just felt like I needed to be involved and it was amazing,” she says. She’s volunteered for “probably five (trips) just this past summer and last year maybe another five or six. It’s an amazing, amazing experience. I love to talk to the guys and kind of show them what they’ve done and say thank you.”
Bill Lapsley, a retired civil engineer and current Henderson County commissioner, has supported HonorAir from the start. He served as captain of Team White on Saturday, ushering veterans on board the bus and into wheelchairs, checking the roll before departures and troubleshooting.
“We’ve got two on our bus that are 98,” Lapsley said. “For people of my generation, we need to do this. These people gave up years of their life. They didn’t get in an argument over whether this was a just cause. The leadership of our country called and said, ‘We need you to do this to make sure our country stays free. You need to step up.’ And they stepped up.”
Lapsley didn’t get the call.
“My senior year, 1969, they instituted the lottery. I won the lottery,” he says. “My birthday was 360. All my high school buddies all got lower numbers and they were gone.”
Like most volunteers, Lapsley feels like volunteering is a small way of giving back to those who did serve in combat.
“My dad was in World War II and he got wounded and he had a rough life,” he says. “He died in ’98 at age 76 and he would never talk to me about the war. He didn’t even want me to ask him a question. I guess I thought when Jeff started this in ’06, I thought, you know, it’s like a minor thing but it’s a way I can give back for what my father’s generation did for me and my generation. It’s a little thing but yet it means so much to these guys. You can see it in their eyes.”

* * * * *

An honor flight ends with one last celebration — a homecoming reception at the Asheville airport with an honor guard, Boy Scout troops, family and friends. The airport director and state Sen. Chuck Edwards were there.
Before they landed, though, veterans heard once more from the captain flying them home.
“People haven’t forgotten what you did, whether it be the people at the airport or the kids and families down here at the memorials that stop to shake your hand,” Petray says. “People haven’t forgotten and they still appreciate what you did. For all the veterans, thank you for your service and thank you for all you guys did.”