It is taking quite a while to get in all the details of my one day with the Honor Flight veterans. If you want to start at the beginning (I've tried to make it a worthwhile read), head over here.
Chuck, whom I was still pushing in the wheelchair, did not need the facilities, so while our Columbus Guardian stayed with our two walkers (Paul and Bill.) I worked to get Chuck's chair up over the curbs to get to the Memorial. Off in the distance, towards the bell tower that is near Iwo Jima (given to the United States in 1960 by the Netherlands), were several Marines in full dress blues, walking in our direction. The cut quite a picture - blue coats, swords strapped on, medals - the works. I wondered if anyone would walk over and ask them to come spend a few minutes with our vets - but didn't want to leave Chuck to do so myself and was struggling still with a rather high curb and a wheelchair. For the record, it is better to back the chair up over the curb as opposed to trying to pop up the front wheels!
Each of the three buses were on a different side of the Memorial for group photos. Our group headed to the far right. We gathered the Red Bus veterans for a group shot, just as we were getting ready to walk around the perimeter of the Memorial, the Marines walked over to join us! They were very respectful, stood behind our vets to get their picture taken, shook each hand and talked and laughed with them for a bit. Our Guardian, Rich, went over to talk to them as well - who knew he was a former Marine?!
While the Marines had their pictures taken with our group, the group shot with the Guardians was forgotten about (and that's okay - those Marines were better dressed, hands down!) I noticed a family of five sitting off to one side, watching our events take place. They asked what we were doing that day. When I told them, the matriarch of the family said that it was her birthday and she had come over to Arlington that day to visit her son's gravesite. He was one of the Infants laid to rest in Arlington nineteen years ago. Her grown daughter, also there with the family that day, had a 9/11 birthday. Her grandson shared his deceased great-uncle's name - he considered it carrying on the legacy of his uncle and proudly told me as much. The family was there at Iwo Jima together remembering, sharing stories and love on a day important to their family.
As the Marines finished shaking hands with the vets, the boy went over to shake hands with them as well. His grandmother explained that her husband had retired from the Marine Corps after 21 years. Right about then, we saw the boy and the Marines laughing - the Marines had asked him if he was going to join the Corps after he got older. He told them no, he was joining the Army! Grandma said she had expected her Marine husband to be angry about that when the boy first announced it, but he had been supportive and said whatever service the boy decided to join was fine with him! How great is it to belong to a family that is so close and so supportive of one another? Between that family and the Marines coming over to offer us a few minutes of their time with us, we more than made up for the protestors we saw at the WWII Memorial when we started the day!
All too soon, we boarded the bus to head back to BWI Airport. The veterans were inquisitive still, asking questions about this building or that one, looking at the various parts of Washington, D.C., with the eyes of an outsider (one told me earlier in the day that he really expected our capital city to be cleaner!) and creating memories to take home with them. One of the last things we saw on our way past the city, before getting on the freeway was one more satisfying moment of the day: While we had been allowed to take our buses straight to the WWII Monument, the protestors had had to park their buses at the edge of the City. The reasons were probably pragmatic - there simply wasn't room for all of those buses inside the city's main area - but it did not dim the glee I must confess I felt when I saw all of the protestors had to walk about 2.5 miles back to their own buses.
With that final image in mind, we gazed out the windows as the last glimpses of the Monuments and the Capital building faded from view. We were tired, but happy on that bus. The atmosphere was a little more subdued, the conversations quieter. Until they announced it was time for MAIL CALL! One last vestige of old, come to life and renewed. A local school from Columbus had sent letters, personally addressed to each veteran on the Honor Flight buses. There was a murmur of excitement (and a few of confusion) as manilla envelopes, filled with letters, were handed to each veteran as they answered to their names. Bill sat in the seat next to me, opening a few letters, dropping a few more on the floor (and we retrieved them!) and ultimately he decided to put them up until he arrived home. They each received goodie bags to take as well.
We parted ways at BWI Airport Saturday, and will not likely ever meet again. Each veteran is (to my knowledge) only allowed one trip on the Honor Flight, in order to allow other veterans to go. Those men and that day will remain in my memory for a very long time - and I have every intention of returning to help with Honor Flight again in the near future. For now, I am working to try to get my lovely White Knight out there in his Dress Blues to help out as well - it is an honor and an opportunity not to be missed!