And More Honor Flight (anecdotes from a week with my vets)

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Following Armed Forces Day, thanks to the kindness of dear friends and family, I was able to stay in the D.C. area for another week and a half greeting Honor Flights that came in. During that time, I was privileged to meet a grand total of 22 Flights and nearly 1,350 veterans (ages 70-101) from all over the United States. If the numbers sound crazy, they are a little. But 100% true. That is the beauty of Honor Flight. It brings together an incredible group of Americans for a united cause. A 100 year old Flyboy wants to see his Memorials in D.C.? Honor Flight can do it!

Here are "just a few" of my favorite moments from Honor Flight Week.

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H U M I L I T Y / If you ask pretty much any WW2 veteran about his service in the war, he will probably tell you (with genuine modesty), "I was only doing what we had to do."

B-24 waist gunner, Mr. H., was even a little more self-deprecating than that when he told me that the 9 months he spent in a German POW camp was, "nothing compared to some of the other guys." Despite the lack of food and poor living he experienced at the hand of the Germans (who were themselves starving), he just didn't think it was that significant. Especially, he said, compared to other POWS like Senator John McCain.

Whether he considers himself to be worthy of the title POW or not is for him to decide. But there is no doubt that this man served our country bravely and well. It was an honor to meet this humble American. 


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Queen City Honor Flight has their hands full with this hilarious and energetic 92 year old. His Guardian and I could not stop laughing the entire time. He told me the three ways to get to his age were:
1. Don't get no tattoos.
2. Don't drink.
3. And, well... we'll leave it at that. 

(He added that I better get my life in order quick).

And during the war...? "The Navy didn't want me so they sent me to Florida." Where he "fought the Battle of the Mosquitoes. They were mighty big and tough!"


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Notes from May 27:

Yesterday while we were greeting Space Coast Honor Flight I spotted one of the veterans wearing his original USMC pins and rank on his name tag. Of course I had to stop and talk with him - Marine alert!!
Mr. Mahoney told me a little about his service (taking basic at "Par-adise Island"), and after we had compared notes on the Marine Corps and talked about our mutual love of this splendid branch, he presented me with his Honor Flight challenge coin!! I was blown away. Something I will treasure greatly. Semper fi!

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For some Honor Flight veterans, the trip is a pilgrimage, more in honor and memory of their fathers' service than recognition for themselves. In speaking with this sweet North Carolina veteran, I was particularly moved by his purpose coming to D.C. Mr. A's father had served in the Navy in World War Two and had been a great inspiration to him growing up. So much so, that he too had joined the Navy, wearing the same uniform his father had worn before him.

When Mr. A. had a son of his own, he hoped that he too would follow in the steps of father and grandfather, becoming the 3rd generation to wear the Navy uniform. The uniform was even a perfect fit. But his dreams were crushed when his bright 22 year-old was killed in a car accident.

For Mr. A., yes, Honor Flight was a chance for his long over-due service to be recognized. But more importantly, it was an opportunity for him to personally pay tribute to his own father and hero.


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This is 3-war veteran Harry Miller. Mr. Miller told me that 60 days after he retired from the Army in 1966, he received notification from his local draft board that he had to register for the draft. Enlisting in the Army at 15 years old, Harry had never had time to register. Fighting in Europe in World War II, already in the Army in Korea, as well as early Vietnam, he was already in! But they insisted.

So after a 22+ year career in the army, he signed up for the draft. Thankfully, he was never called up again. 

Harry also told me that after serving in a tank battalion in World War II, he lost most of his hearing.  "I lost my hearing after... probably the first shell was fired," he said. "And it took five years before the ringing stopped in my ears."

I had first met Harry a couple of weeks earlier when I was in D.C. with Greater Peoria Honor Flight, and had the pleasure of running into him again on Memorial Day! He told me that I should carry an umbrella around so I could really be the Statue of Liberty. A terrific guy, and one of America's finest soldiers!


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Finally, in preparation for Memorial Day, the USAA Traveling Poppy Wall had come to D.C. 645,000 poppies representing every American serviceman killed from World War I to the present. Truly, nothing could prepare for its visual power. Thousands upon thousands of poppies. 

I walked around the corner and had to catch my breath. All I could wonder was how many Gold Star family members were represented by each poppy...

If you have a family member, friend, or friend of a friend who was killed in the service of our country, I highly recommend you check out their website and possibly even dedicate a poppy. Click here to learn more: https://poppyinmemory.usaacloud.com/

645,000 poppies, 645,000 servicemen. This is why we have a Memorial Day.

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Armed Forces Day / Honor Flight Super Saturday

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President Harry S. Truman led the effort to establish a single holiday for citizens to come together and thank our military members for their patriotic service in support of our country. On August 31, 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson announced the creation of an Armed Forces Day to replace separate Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force Days. The single day celebration stemmed from the unification of the Armed Forces under the Department of Defense. - AFD.defense.gov

It would not be a proper May without a Super Saturday at the WWII Memorial. Over the last few years, this has become an unintentional tradition (and one that I'm most happy to continue into the future!), as each May some or all of us end up in D.C. just in time for a Super Saturday.

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Notes from May 19:

Armed Forces Day / Despite the dreary skies, spirits and energy were high at the National World War II Memorial today as we welcomed 9 Honor Flights from all over the country, Oregon to New York!! At one point, we even had 3 full flights invade the Memorial at the same time - the happiest and most wonderful organized chaos. I can think of no better way to spend this special day recognizing our troops. It was an honor. Love our vets so much!!


PC: Hudson Valley HF

PC: Hudson Valley HF

For those new to Operation Meatball or unfamiliar with the way Honor Flight works, Super Saturdays are days when an unusually large number of Honor Flights arrive at the memorials in D.C. Though all Honor Flight days are magical in their own way, Super Saturdays are overwhelmingly awesome.

From 8:30 in the morning to around 4:30 in the afternoon, it's a constant barrage of veterans, guardians, and wheelchairs.  Each State brings their own personality, stories, and hilarity. Handshakes, hugs, greetings... before you know it, the day is over, and you are exhausted, but so, so happy.

The Armed Forces Day Super Saturday brought in a whopping 9 flights from around the country, equaling between 800 and 900 veterans! Below are just a few snippets from the day.


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Enjoyed a nice chat with the sweet Mr. Bartram from Oregon. He was a Medic with the Marine Corps from 1951-1952, assigned to a Machine gun unit. Always an honor to meet our brave medics! 

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This adorable swabby spent some time explaining to me how "The Sea Bees won the war!"

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You never know who will turn up on a Super Saturday! Such a pleasure to meet General James Mattis, Secretary of Defense. Of course we had to talk about Iwo Jima.

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When I met Mr. Hastings, he was wearing the Honor Flight Smile to the max. He told me how he was only on this trip thanks to a random woman who approached him in Walmart and said, "Have you ever heard of Honor Flight?" Shortly after he was signed up and on his flight, and loving every moment of it!

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We managed to round up [most] of the Marines from Honor Flight Columbus because you know... it's the Marines. ❤

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It's pretty great when you run into folks you know through Honor Flight...or their relatives! I met Mr. Miller's uncle "Moon" Miller in Normandy a few years ago!

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Always a delight for the vets to have Senator Dole come out to the Memorial.

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The Boys Scouts were a great addition to the day, handing out mini American Flags to the veterans.

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And the best dressed award goes to... 


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Greater Peoria Honor Flight / May 8, 2018

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The month of May was truly Honor Flight month for Operation Meatball. Immediately following the Chino Air Show (which I talked about last post), OM began a whirl-wind trip to Peoria, Illinois.

Just a few weeks earlier, I had received a text from my dear friend (and Operation Meatball board member) Phyllis Piraino of Greater Peoria Honor Flight that they had a spot for me on their May 8th Flight. I was beyond ecstatic. As you all know, I LOVE working with Honor Flight, and there are few hubs I'd rather fly with than Greater Peoria. They were our very first Honor Flight nearly four years ago, and because of that, we share a special bond with them. 

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Notes from May 7:

 

Nearly 4 years ago we met our first Honor Flight at the WWII Memorial: Greater Peoria Honor Flight (GPHF). Today I got to see our very first Honor Flight vet, Bob L-, and tomorrow I fly out with GPHF for their V-E Day Honor Flight. Excited doesn't even begin to describe it. But it's a start. We have a bright and early start in the AM, so DC peeps: stay tuned for some pretty happy vets about to head your way!

 
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The night before a trip, GPHF hosts a Pre-Flight Dinner. This is a wonderful opportunity for the vets to get together, meet, break the ice, give any final information for the trip the next day, and enjoy a hearty meal!

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The details that go into this dinner are numerous. In fact, this is one of the things we first noticed about GPHF which sets it apart: their attention to detail and community effort. It isn't a millionaire who sends the vets to D.C., it is the hard work of the local community. During the last school year alone, students from grade schools in Peoria raised $106,480 to send their heroes, the veterans of the Greater Peoria area, to DC!! This is just incredible.

From the adorable goody bags decorated by local children, to the incredible pre-flight dinner, the veterans can't help but feel completely loved and honored for their service.


Flight Day!

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Mornings are early with Honor Flight, but the energy is always high enough to make up for it. First comes check-in, then photos, followed by the easiest trip through security that you'll ever experience. 

Popping around, asking the vets if they were ready for the day, I heard from one of our Korean War vets that he had already had the most wonderful time, and he didn't know how it could get better. "Wait a minute! You can't say that," I told him. "It's 4:30 am in the morning, and we haven't even left Peoria yet." But he insisted. His cup was almost filled up with the happiness he had experienced in the last 24 hours. "Just you wait..." was all I could tell him, and I had to leave him contentedly thinking it couldn't get better. 

Coffee and donuts provided by the Salvation Army, the National Anthem played by two darling little girls on the violin, and we are off!! 


Arrival in DC!

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Whenever an Honor Flight lands in D.C., the entire terminal is notified, and everything is put on hold to greet these heroes with handshakes, clapping, even a little music. Of course, the vets are not expecting this, and I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of moist eyes among the group.


National World War Two Memorial

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First Stop: The National World War Two Memorial for the May 8, V-E Day Program. This was extra special for our group as we had 7 World War Two veterans on this flight who were invited to participate in the ceremony. 

Photo credit: Greater Peoria Honor Flight

Needless to say, the memorials never get old ~ each visit is a new experience, a new memory. But visiting the WWII Memorial with WWII vets, and on such a significant anniversary as May 8, the end of World War Two... it's really hard to beat that.

Some of the WWII vets presented the wreaths for the VE Day ceremony.

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Sunny and warm, but a perfect day. And these two kept us smiling the entire day.

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I always love to see the veterans getting together and chatting... no longer strangers.

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Two of our WWII,s. 

Photo Credit: The fabulous Tami Stieger 

Photo Credit: The fabulous Tami Stieger 

Surprise visit from a few of my BWI Brownies!


The Vietnam Wall

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Each memorial holds a special significance to me... the Vietnam Wall is no exception. For the sake of time, I'll just share one story with you from this emotional memorial...

Notes from May 12 / A highlight from Greater Peoria Honor Flight's trip on Tuesday was visiting the Vietnam wall with our Nam vets. I was able to help Archie find a few of his friends' names (many of them childhood friends)... but the most touching moment came when he told me the story of an officer of his who's name is on the wall:

It was Friday the 13th. Archie and 12 other men were on a patrol in Vietnam. Communications were poor and before he knew it they were being fired on - by their own men. They had unknowingly run into a brother unit who took them for VC. In a matter of moments, every man in his 13-man patrol was wounded, and the officer (fresh out of OTS) was killed. It is one of the tragic accidents of war, and sadly there are too many stories similar to Archie's.

Each visit to the wall is uniquely special... but this is one I will remember for a long time. 


Air Force Memorial

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I ended up spending the entire time at the Air Force Memorial listening as this kind and gentle man, Mr. Avery, explained to me how meaningful this whole experience had been for him. At the end of the day, as we disembarked from the plane back in Peoria, his eyes were full of tears. No words needed to translate that.


Welcome Home

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Moving forward because it's impossible to capture every moment in one blogpost (those of you who suffered through our post[s] several years ago when the girls and I were guardians for two 95 year-old Air Force vets know what I'm talking about)... The Welcome-Home.

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I've never teared up at a Welcome-Home before. But I certainly did here (I'll just blame it on Mr. Avery for getting me started). I walked down the line taking photos of the countless people holding signs, cheering the veterans, hugging and kissing, thanking the veterans, the bagpipes, the families greeting their loved ones... I'm still getting chokey thinking about it.

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Honestly, this was the best Welcome-Home I've ever been to. I'm not good at estimated numbers, but I can say that the entire airport terminal was packed (and I mean PACKED) with people. 

The entire day was a magical one for our vets, and I'm afraid I've only been able to give you a few inadequate highlights. The work that goes into each flight is just enormous, and I can't say enough about the whole GPHF crew, who are really the heart and soul of this Honor Flight hub! And the biggest hug and thanks to Phyllis for including me! 

Finally, the number one word that comes to mind with Honor Flight is Healing. Whether it is tough memories that won't fade, or possibly hard feelings over long overdue recognition, these dear men, who served our country in good times and in bad, come home with a new feeling of respect, healing, and value. 


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Musical bond: Brenham vet's friendship with sisters on mission

Many thanks to Chris for writing such a sweet piece for Veterans Day on our dear Honor Flight veteran, Mr. Twiggs, and our friendship with him. ❤


Musical bond: Brenham vet's friendship with sisters on mission

By Chris Wimmer / Brenham Banner [The Banner Press]

On Sept. 26, 2014, Keith Twiggs ran headlong into Operation Meatball and he didn’t even know it. He arrived in Washington, D.C. with dozens of World War II vets on an Honor Flight from Austin. None of them had any idea Operation Meatball was lying in wait.

As the veterans exited the plane, they were each seated in wheelchairs and pushed across the tarmac by guardians. A young girl was handing out yellow roses to each man as he passed and when Twiggs reached her position, the procession paused.

Someone called out, “Virginia, I want to get your picture with him.”

Virginia Phillips stepped closer and had her picture taken with Twiggs. Then the veterans were on the move again. Twiggs and the other 48 men in the group embarked on their day of travels around the nation’s capital.

The following day, the vets visited the World War II memorial.

A young woman with dark hair and wardrobe from the 1940s began the program by singing one of Twiggs’ favorite songs, “Begin The Beguine.” The tune was written by Cole Porter and made famous by Victor Shaw in 1938.

When the song was finished, Twiggs began to learn of three sisters — Jubilee, Liberty and Faith — and their three-year journey to honor the men and women who of World War II.

The trio were from San Antonio and had found out that a group of veterans from Texas would be visiting D.C. that weekend. It was the perfect time to kick off a quest they called Operation Meatball.

Frank Sinatra Went Bad

“I was in the second row, about the center,” Twiggs said. “So this gal who sang the first song, came directly to me. I have no idea in the world why.”

When the program at the WWII monument finished, the performers mingled with the veterans. Faith Phillips walked straight up to Twiggs.

“He said, ‘Hey, you sang ‘Begin The Beguine.’ I love that song,” Faith said.

They formed a connection instantly. The song was also a favorite of Faith’s grandfather. Though she was only 14, she loved “old” music. She had followed that song with a Glenn Miller standard, “In The Mood,” and Twiggs had another message for her.

“My wife and I, our first dance was to ‘In the Mood’ when went to school together up in Oklahoma,’” Twiggs said.

The musical bond between Faith and Twiggs deepened a moment later when they both realized something: they didn’t like Frank Sinatra.

To clarify, they didn’t like Frank Sinatra after 1950. Before that, he was great.

“Everybody likes Frank Sinatra but I’ve always said — you can hate me for this — but I don’t like listening to Frank Sinatra after 1950 because his voice got so commercialized,” Faith said. “When he was singing with Tommy Dorsey, that’s when he had that amazing tone.”

Twiggs put it more bluntly. “When he went out on his own, that’s when he went bad.”

Friendship Fated

Call it fate, call it luck, call it coincidence, but whatever you call it, the stars aligned that weekend in 2014 for a small group of Texans.

The Phillips sisters received their love of history, and specifically the World War II era, from their parents, Doug and Beall. In 2011 and 2014, the family visited Normandy for the anniversary of D-Day and the trips proved to be life-changing experiences for the sisters.

“We came home and said we have to find a way to meet more veterans and spend more time doing this,” Faith said.

Faith was 14 years old, Jubilee was 16 and Liberty was 18.

“So we said we’ll dedicate the next three years (to meeting veterans) and technically the three years is up, so we’re recalibrating how forward into the next phase,” Liberty laughed.

The girls speak from the Twiggs’ living room in Kruse Village. Jubilee was not able to make the trip, but five other members of the Phillips clan have stopped for a visit on the way home from a wedding in Georgia. Faith and Liberty are there, as well as their mother, Beall, and younger sister Virginia with younger brother Providence. It is the third reunion since their introduction in Washington, D.C.

On this visit, Twiggs broke out his trombone, an instrument he says might be older than him. He turns 94 on Nov. 18, but his father bought the horn in the late 1930s from a pawn shop and there is no way to know its age. It was dented and without a case, but Twiggs played it throughout high school.

He acquired a case at some point in the horn’s history, but even that article is older than all the guests admiring the relic in the living room.

The Phillips family loved it immediately. At the end of the day, as they packed up to head home to San Antonio, Twiggs gave them the trombone as a gift.

The horn came into his possession roughly 80 years ago in Seminole, Oklahoma and now it will live on in San Antonio.

Service

Twiggs grew up in Seminole surrounded by oil fields, but he was never big enough to work the rigs. When he was 11 years old, he met his wife Elizabeth in the tiny town of Slick, about 40 miles south of Tulsa. She was nine at the time and Twiggs’ family was visiting her family for a Sunday luncheon.

A year later, Elizabeth moved to Seminole when her father’s job with Gulf Oil transferred him to the area. She and Twiggs lived no more than 100 yards apart and were close throughout high school. At 17, Twiggs moved to California. Those two years and the three he spent in the service were the only five years he and Elizabeth have been separated.

They married in 1947 and April 15, 2018 will mark 71 years of union.

Twiggs was a natural mechanic and when he entered the military his abilities quickly stood out. He had spent some time helping build Highway 59 outside Houston and had worked in the shipyards in California before he received his draft letter.

He reported to the dry dock in San Pedro and was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi to receive training on B-24 bomber engines. He bounced from Texas to Michigan to Utah and eventually received his discharge while he was in California.

He quickly married Elizabeth and 65 years later, their lives would intertwine with a family from San Antonio that had a love of WWII history.

After their fateful trip to Normandy in 2014, the Phillips sisters decided to host and attend events that honored WWII veterans. The girls dressed in the style of the 1940s and Faith began to build a repertoire of songs from the era.

No one remembers how the plan came to be called Operation Meatball, but the name stuck. They started a website and a blog to chronicle their experiences. They took photographs aplenty and Faith recorded some classic songs of the day. And it all started in Washington D.C. on a weekend in September.

Jubilee, Liberty, Faith and Virginia were part of the greeting committee as multiple Honor Flights arrived at the same time. Faith sang during the greeting and the next day, a woman remembered her and quickly asked her if she’d be willing to perform again.

The woman happened to be with Twiggs’ group of veterans from the Austin flight. Faith sang two songs that resonated with Twiggs and then ended up speaking to him when the program finished.

Twiggs and his wife Elizabeth began to correspond with the Phillips family. They exchanged letters, phone calls and emails and Faith sent photos and CDs of music. The girls traveled to Kruse Village for visits and actually performed for residents on one of the trips.

On Sept. 26, 2014, Keith Twiggs was unsuspectingly snared by Operation Meatball. A friendship was formed that exists to this day as a family from San Antonio strove to honor the nation’s oldest veterans

Musical bond: Brenham vet's friendship with sisters on mission

Bob Lake: Our First Honor Flight Veteran

So many things have happened in the last few years with Operation Meatball. Even when we try and keep tight records on all that goes on, some things still slip through the cracks. However, there is one afternoon that will always be as clear as the day it happened: September 23, 2014. The date's easy to remember... it was the day before my 18th birthday, but even more significantly, it was our very first experience greeting Honor Flights at the WW2 Memorial. Our very first flight was Greater Peoria Honor Flight (GPHF). And our very first veteran was Bob Lake. 

Our first meeting back in 2014. 

Our first meeting back in 2014. 

Immediately following GPHF's program at the Memorial, we met Mr. Lake. He told us that he had turned 18 the day the Japanese surrendered, August 14, 1945. What a day!! For his trip to DC, he had brought with him a newspaper clipping of a cousin who died overseas during the Korea War.

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When we left him at the memorial, we thought that was goodbye. But after the trip, we sent him a few photos and a note through the GPHF headquarters, and shortly after we were surprised (and pleased as punch!) to receive a card from him. Over the next three years, we exchanged letters, keeping up on each others lives. A year after our meeting, his beautiful wife, Jeanette passed away just shy of their 65th anniversary. But he kept going, and we were happy to see his face periodically in the Honor Flight Welcome Home photos. 

With all this background, coming to Peoria meant a visit with Mr. Lake was a must! And such a delightful visit it was. In today's world of social media: email over letters, texting over phone calls, coffee dates over house calls, it's a pretty special thing to be brought into someone's home. It's personal. 

Holding a bottle of dirt from the "Dust Bowl."

Holding a bottle of dirt from the "Dust Bowl."

For several hours, we poured over pictures as Mr. Lake told us stories of growing up in Kansas during the Great Depression, followed by the lesser known (but still infamous) Dust Bowl or "The Dirty Thirties." A period in the mid-1930s when the ever-growing, over-worked farmland of the mid-west revolted and covered several states in literal Dust Storms. And there was no escaping. Mr. Lake described several times when he and his brothers were surrounded by the choking dust winds without any warning. A nearby barn saved them, but it was miserable.

After these storms passed, everything in sight would be covered in dry dust. The poorly insulated houses were no exception. Tables, chairs, beds, food, rugs, everything was covered. The severity and destruction of these storms eventually caused Mr. Lake's father to take his family and move back to Illinois. But not before collecting a bottle of this ruinous dust. 

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I couldn't have been happier to see Mr. Lake again after these last few years. It was like our whole experience with Honor Flight came full circle. Our first experience with Honor Flight, a brief meeting at the WW2 Memorial, long-distance friends, and finally back together. We are so looking forward to many more years of happy friendship with this wonderful man. 

Operation Meatball Goes to Illinois: Breakfast With Heroes *or* Abbott and Costello Meet Their Match in Harold and Barney

A real highlight for us during our time in Peoria was getting to attend a special weekly breakfast get-together of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam veterans from Greater Peoria Honor Flight. And what a treat it was! Whenever you have the opportunity to sit at a table of men who served our country, it is an honor and an unforgettable experience. 

The very merry group who gathered around the tables this morning were the same fellas who came in by storm the day before and had left everyone holding their sides in laughter and hilarity. 

I was delighted to find a seat down at one end of the table next to none other than Abbot and Costello 2.0 a.k.a Harold and Barney, the two life-long friends. We chatted, laughed, and I listened to stories of their escapades and adventures in the local circus. 

Barney: "You're from Texas?"

Me: "Yes!"

Barney: "Do you know Stinky?"

Me: (laughing) "I don't think so. Where does he live?"

Barney: "Have you ever heard of Seagoville, Texas?"

Me: "Nope." (Despite living in TX all my life... I still don't know all the towns) 

We looked up the town and find it right next to Gun Barrel City, another town I'd never heard of. They both ended up living in the suburbs of the Dallas suburbs. Yes, that's really what they told me. After all, 100 miles away is still the suburbs, right? 

Harold: "Yup. That's where he lives."

Barney: "If you ever go up there, give him a call. Tell him I say hello."

Me: "Okay."

Harold: "Better not. He'll probably hang up on you when he hears Barney's name."


So much laughter later, we got around to talking about Harold's service in the Marine Corps. Mr. Berg in fact is one of the very last of the elite Marine Corps Raiders. In a sense, the Raiders were the precursor to the US Special Ops Forces. Their job was tough and called for an even tougher type of guy. I've only had the opportunity to meet one other Raider, Bert Stolier of the WWII Museum. He participated in some of the hardest fought battles of the Pacific including Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima.

For Mr. Berg, his time as a Raider was none the less hard. He participated in the fighting at Guadalcanal, Guam (where he was bayonetted in the leg by a Japanese soldier they had presumed dead), Saipan, Bouganville and New Georgia. Later, he received injuries in the face, shoulder, chest, and hand by an enemy grenade. Fighting on Okinawa was brutal, losing all 12 men in his squad. That he survived at all is truly a miracle.

Nearly 92 (in fact we practically share a birthday... just separated by one day and a few years), he is still as plucky a fellow as ever. He told me that within a few days following our visit he would be returning to the Guadalcanal for a special memorial service he would be presiding over. We are a blessed country indeed to have such men as Harold Berg willing to serve, whether it is as a teenager on the battlefields of the Pacific, or as a nonagenarian willing to make the extremely arduous journey back to those same battlefields, just so that the memory of our boys and their sacrifice will not be forgotten. 


The rest of the breakfast went splendidly. With enough time for everyone to finish their meals, Faith pulled her ukulele out and soon both tables were singing merrily along to different war-time favorites. A few eyes got misty on "I'll Walk Alone." Others reminisced during "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." And they all joined in for, "You Are My Sunshine." It was marvelous. 


Phyllis Piraino and two of GPHF's very wonderful veterans. PC: Greater Peoria Honor Flight. 

Phyllis Piraino and two of GPHF's very wonderful veterans. PC: Greater Peoria Honor Flight. 

I must take a moment and thank our sweet and amazing friend, Phyllis Piraino, Vice-President of GPHF. Though we had never officially met until this trip, we'd  kept in touch over the years since the girls and I first met the Peoria flight in D.C. And honestly, it felt like we had known her forever. Her genuine love for America's veterans, coupled with a tireless enthusiasm (no small potatoes!) for her work with Honor Flight is a rare quality to find. Throughout the week, we were completely inspired by how Phyllis and the fabulous staff of GPHF have worked not only to send veterans to D.C., but also to include and incorporate the entire community of Peoria as well. Giving anyone - from the oldest to the youngest - the opportunity to thank the men who have served out country. And isn't that what makes the whole Honor Flight experience so special for these dear veterans? 

Our few days in Peoria couldn't have been lovelier, and though we've only been home a short while, we are already planning and scheming ways to get back up there. Thank you Greater Peoria Honor Flight for a superb visit and for sharing your time and veterans with us!!


Click HERE to Learn More about Greater Peoria Honor Flight

Operation Meatball Goes to Illinois: An Afternoon With The Greater Peoria Honor Flight

There is so much to tell from our adventures in Illinois. We met so many marvelous individuals, enjoyed some very special moments, and visited dear friends we haven't seen in several years (some of whom we haven't seen since we first started Operation Meatball!). It was truly a fabulous experience. The next few blogposts won't necessarily be in order of events, but you can be sure they will be filled with photos! 


We arrived in Peoria, Illinois, late Saturday night brimming with excitement about finally getting to see our GPHF (Greater Peoria Honor Flight) friends again after nearly 3 years, and hopefully raising some money to bring veterans to DC. 

The fundraiser for GPHF was being held at a local museum called "Wheels O' Time." I can hardly think of a more enjoyable venue. Immediately upon entering the main building, we felt as if we had stepped back in time to a scene from the movie "State Fair" (1945) or possibly the boardwalk of Coney Island in the 1930s. Classic cars from the 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s filled the center hall. On either side were countless rooms with various amusements such as a presidential barbershop quartet, a vintage grocer's store, a music parlor, reading room, mechanics shop, and much more! 

PC: Phyllis Piraino 

PC: Phyllis Piraino 

12pm on the dot, veterans and guests started to arrive. One of the jolliest groups of veterans we've ever met arrived and immediately had us all in stitches of laughter.  For quite a nice while we chatted and tried to keep everyone's names straight. Some of the banter went like this, "I'm Barney. This is Harold. That's Doc. Watch what you say in front of Doc. He remembers everything." Then Harold would interrupt with, "Don't believe anything Barney says." So Barney would say, "I only tell the truth." 

Barney and Harold. 

Barney and Harold. 

Turns out Barney and Harold have been friends since they were school kids. Over 75 years. Talking with the two of them was like watching an Abbot and Costello show. During the war, Harold joined the Marines, while Barney took the Air Corps. I asked them how they chose their respective branches. Barney explained that, in their school programs, the recruiters would periodically come and give presentations on why the young men should enlist, complete with a full (and very dashing) color guard. "I went with the Air Corps. They seemed to think I was a poor flyer so they stuck me in training for 2 years."

"And Mr. Bergen?"

Barney chuckled. "Harold saw those fancy Marines' uniforms... and he was gone." 

"No." The Marine Raider said emphatically. "That's not what made me join. I wanted to fight, and the Marines are always first in."

"It was the uniform." Said Barney patting his friend on the shoulder. 


A fun part of the afternoon's program was Faith's singing. For today she had lined up a whole bunch of 30s, 40s, and even a few 50s numbers. Whether she is singing to one person or 50, it's always exciting to watch the audience response. 

One Korean War veteran (with the best smile!) arrived and asked right away where the singing could be found. I directed him to the upper level "Music Parlor." 

"When I was in DC," he said, "There were some girls singing and dancing to the "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." I wanted to sing it with them but I couldn't remember the words. So I made sure to bring them with me today!" He pulled out of his pocket the lyrics to the Andrew Sister's hit. I ran upstairs and told Faith about her special request. "I don't have the music for it," she said, "But we can play the Andrews Sisters' track and sing-along." The Korean vet was delighted and they proceeded to sing (and dance) the most adorable duet along with the original music. 


The whole afternoon was just so much fun. It was splendid helping to raise money for one of our very favorite organizations, Honor Flight. Below are just a few more photos. 

Honor Flight wouldn't get very far without it's wonderful veteran Guardians, Butlers, Valets, or Escorts. Jubilee and Faith are pictured here with one of our friendliest HF guardians, John Myers. We met Mr. Myers back in 2014 and spent quite a while chatting with him and his veteran, Bill Vasen. It was swell getting to see him again after all this time!! 

Honor Flight wouldn't get very far without it's wonderful veteran Guardians, Butlers, Valets, or Escorts. Jubilee and Faith are pictured here with one of our friendliest HF guardians, John Myers. We met Mr. Myers back in 2014 and spent quite a while chatting with him and his veteran, Bill Vasen. It was swell getting to see him again after all this time!! 

Jubilee with one of the Air Corps Veterans. He is wearing his original cap!! pc: Phyllis Piraino

Jubilee with one of the Air Corps Veterans. He is wearing his original cap!! pc: Phyllis Piraino

Some of the super GPHF volunteers. pc: Phyllis Piraino

Some of the super GPHF volunteers. pc: Phyllis Piraino

One of our new friends (and a real sweetheart!), Gene Neeley. A veteran devoted to Greater Peoria Honor Flight. pc: Phyllis Piraino

One of our new friends (and a real sweetheart!), Gene Neeley. A veteran devoted to Greater Peoria Honor Flight. pc: Phyllis Piraino

pc: Phyllis Piraino

pc: Phyllis Piraino

Stay tuned for more stories and photos! 

The Illinois Adventures Begins

Greater Peoria Honor Flight - September 23, 2014

Greater Peoria Honor Flight - September 23, 2014

Our Illinois adventures have begun!!!

Three years ago when we first dipped our toes into the infectious waters of Honor Flight, the very first group we met at the WWII Memorial was Greater Peoria Honor Flight. It couldn't have been a better introduction to this wonderful world and dozens of HF's later, it still stands out as one of the most memorable.

We made some special friends that afternoon, and ever since we've been quite eager to get up to Illinois for a visit, but despite all our traveling we've never yet made it up to there. So you can imagine then how excited we are to finally be making the trip! 

The next week is lined up and packed to the brim with veteran visits, the Greater Peoria Honor Flight fundraiser, more veteran visits, and a couple of retirement homes. Depending on how busy things get, we'll try and get a couple of short posts up here. 

Upcoming Event in Peoria Illinois...

We are so excited to announce that we will be in Illinois July 23rd for a grand old-fashioned, fun-filled afternoon at the Wheels O' Time Museum raising $$$ for our wonderful friends at Greater Peoria Honor Flight. If you are in the Peoria area, or don't mind a little drive, you should definitely come on out. It is going to be a FABULOUS afternoon! Veterans are Free.

Two years ago today...

Two years ago today we had our first experience with Honor Flight. To say it was amazing is an understatement. It was life-changing. For one week we met and greeted the HF's coming in to the WWII Memorial in DC, handing out roses, hugs, handshakes. And that was only the beginning. In some ways it seems like so much longer than two years (in the very best way!), but then it's as clear as if it were yesterday. It was the start of many wonderful memories; meeting some of the dearest people on earth. The Honor Flight family is truly one of a kind. Below is what we wrote after the first day of Honor Flight:

“We arrived in Washington DC last night.This week we have the privilege of welcoming World War II veterans coming in on honor flights to visit “their” Memorial, the National World War II Memorial. There will be hundreds this week. “We will never see another gathering of veterans of this number again.”

We visited the memorial with a very special guide, John W. McCaskill, a National Park Service representative and World War II historian we met three years ago in Pearl Harbor. His passion for honor and history is simply infectious. He walked us around the beautifully lit memorial with zeal and enthusiasm, explaining every aspect: The eagles, the fountain, the emblems, the gold stars, the bas reliefs, and on and on. Today we will greet veterans at the airport and at the memorial.” (September 23, 2014)

Happy Birthday National WWII Memorial

Yesterday was the 12th birthday of the National WWII Memorial in DC., and though we're a day late, we had to just wish it a belated happy birthday. Some of our fondest memories have taken place at this memorial where worlds come together for one purpose: honor and remembrance. It is here that in a space of time so short, we have met some of the most wonderful friends you could ever ask for. It is here that the walls of the memorial hold the echos of songs we have sung with gray-haired heroes. The pavement boasts tears that have dropped from our eyes at the loved ones gone forever but always in our hearts. And the wind rushes through it all whispering tales of bravery and honor, the like that is hard to find. Happy birthday dear WWII Memorial. May you continue to show gratitude and honor to those who so nobly served our country. 

A Gold Star Meant for Me

When you visit the National World War II Memorial in D.C., you will see a wall covered in gold stars. There are 4,048 stars on this wall; each representing 100 men who sacrificed their lives for us in WWII. Last year we met Mr. Lee (pictured) at this memorial. Mr. Lee doesn't like to talk about the war at all. He was part of the 11th Airborne and made four jumps in the Pacific, taking part in some of the fiercest battles. But he did tell us something that was beautiful, sad, and poignant. In a thoughtful voice he said, "There is a star on that wall that was supposed to be for me. But it is for my friend instead. He took my place." The memory of the moment when his buddy took a grenade for him is still as clear as when it happened 70 years ago.

"The Three Musketeers," "Squadron 95," and their grand little adventure in D.C., part 2

Liberty and Mr. Virden at the World War Two Memorial

Liberty and Mr. Virden at the World War Two Memorial

continued...

Our first stop: The World War Two Memorial. Though the Korean War Memorial gave it a close run for it’s money, the WWII Memorial will always be my favorite memorial because of it’s history, the significance, and the memories which we have there. Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill had never visited it before, and I think they enjoyed every minute of it, despite the fiercely cold blasts of wind that seemed to appear just for us.

IMG_1235.jpg

We arrived early enough that morning to escape some of the crowds, but not before a school field trip surrounded some of our fellas, shaking hands, taking pictures, and thanking them. Jubilee and I took Mr. Covill to some of the places on the walls where it marked the locations he had served, the main one being Tinian Island. Though little known today, Tinian Island holds a significant part in WWII that changed the entire course of history. Mr. Covill, after gallivanting all over the world as an electrical engineer for the Air Force, would end up spending one year on Tinian, during which the war came to an end. 

Mr. Covill pointing to Tinian Island, where he was stationed for 1 year during the war. 

Liberty with Mr. Jeff Miller, cofounder of the Honor Flight program

Liberty with Mr. Jeff Miller, cofounder of the Honor Flight program

When the Enola Gay was on Tinian to be loaded with her precious cargo, Little Boy, the first Atomic bomb, he said, “I didn’t help load it, but I watched it and they had to open both bombay doors it was so large.” He laughed when I asked him if it was hard to sleep knowing such a bomb was just next door. “Of course not because we had no idea what it was!” But I bet it made the hair stand up on his neck when he learned about it afterwords. 

While we were at the memorial, Mr. Jeff Miller, the cofounder of the Honor Flight program came out and spoke with our veterans. It was a beautiful thing to see him talking with the vets. Over the years since Honor Flight first came about in 2004, Mr. Miller has seen his vision grow as thousands and thousands of WWII Veterans have taken trips to the WWII Memorial, making dreams come true and showing honor to a generation of men set apart from all others. It meant a lot to all of the veterans that he came out to speak with them personally, and many were in tears as they thanked him for his vision to see our veterans honored. 

It should be noted that one of the mottos of the trip was, “If you aren’t on the bus on time, you might find yourself on a bus with hoards of teenagers and school kids.” So after our allotted time, we hustled to the bus to head to the next stop: the Vietnam and Korean War memorials. These are stories in themselves. But since I am trying to stick to Mr. Covill and Mr. Virden right now, we’ll have to come back later. 

The Air Force Memorial was definitely one of the most memorable parts of the trip. We’d never been before, and though it is a magnificent piece of architecture, what made it so special was that it was dedicated to men like Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill, our flyboys. 

Liberty and Mr. Virden at the Air Force Memorial

Liberty and Mr. Virden at the Air Force Memorial

Wheelchairs were pretty much required considering the length of the day, so to keep Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill on their toes, every once in a while we’d swap out “wheelchair duty” and see how long it would take for them to notice. I took Mr. Virden and pushed him around, admiring the height of the memorial, chatting here and there about the Air Force, etc.

Mr. Virden at the Air Force Memorial

Mr. Virden at the Air Force Memorial

Up to this point, when we had asked Mr. Virden where he had served during the war, he was quite insistent that he'd stayed stateside flying transports. As the day went on, we managed to pull a little more out of him, learning that he had indeed flown transports, not just stateside, but to the Pacific regions too. This was something. What did he carry? We had to ask, of course. The answer: everything. Paratroopers on their training jumps, equipment, cannons, even live monkeys. After the war he stayed in for a total of 21 years, making a career of it.

As I pushed his wheelchair, he asked to get a closer look at one of the memorial walls. As he read it -a list of Air Force Combat and Expeditionary Operations during the Korean war- he bit his lip and said, "I flew those three up there." It was obvious there was more to it than just flying, so I asked him what he was transporting. "Supplies and ammunition in... and severely wounded out..." I learned then that every single day from June 1950 to January 1951, Mr. Virden would make the trip from Japan to Korea. Supplies in, wounded out. Every. Single. Day.

Mr. Covill at the Air Force Memorial

Mr. Covill at the Air Force Memorial

Mr. Virden never got near enough to the combat to experience it, though the sounds of battle were loud and clear, but he saw plenty of it in the faces and damaged bodies of the American boys he carried out. An almost never ending number that must have seemed hopeless at times because he never knew how many of them, some too young to shave, would survive. Though this conversation at the Air Force Memorial was in reality only a moment, it drove deeper the somber reality that war is a terrible, terrible thing, and you don't always have to be in the middle of the action to get a front row seat to its horror. 

Following the Air Force Memorial, we stopped briefly at the Iwo Jima Memorial - no doubt, one of the most beautiful monuments in D.C., a masterpiece of work and an unceasing reminder of American freedom.

The climax of the Honor Flight for most of the veterans was the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown, Arlington

Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown, Arlington

This has been often talked and written about, and most people make a point to visit it, so I won’t go into the details here. Suffice it to say, it is a remarkable and moving event to watch, only made more so by the fact that we were surrounded by veterans, not just of our Honor Flight, but two other Honor Flights, equaling nearly 200 veterans. Just beautiful!

The last stop was a new memorial, the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. This meant a lot to some of the fellows who have been carrying their injuries, internally and externally, for their entire life. Speaking to one of the veterans at this memorial, we learned that his son was the first U.S. casualty in Afghanistan. He was coming on this honor flight, not just for himself, but in memory of his beloved son. 

Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial

Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial

But as all good things, even the best, must come to an end...or at least take a pause, our wonderful trip was drawing to a close. After a delightful tour of D.C. (in which -as Mr. Virden pointed out- we must have passed the Pentagon a dozen times), we traveled back to the airport for our return journey.

Though ready to get home, I think we were all a bit somber at the thought of leaving our new dear friends. At the beginning of this brief trip to D.C., we were all strangers, gathered together from various parts of Austin and the surrounding cities. But by the time we arrived home (as cliche as it sounds), it truly felt like we were all family -the entire group. 

Dinner, a water cannon salute, the delightful plane ride home chatting with a few of the veterans about our favorite radio shows from the 40s and 50s, another water cannon salute in Austin, and then the de-boarding - We were almost home, but not yet. There was one more surprise waiting for the veterans of Austin Honor Flight #30. After everyone was off the plane, we lined up again and proceeded out of the terminal (by now pretty empty because of the hour). Waiting at the end of the terminal, by the front doors, was a crowd of family and friends ready to welcome these heroes home. Upon seeing the crowd a split second before they all bellowed out "Welcome Home," two or three of the Vietnam veterans walking behind us declared, "Oh no! Not again!" But their grinning faces said otherwise. 

"Squadron 95." A little tired and bleary-eyed, but very happy. Our last photo together before saying goodbye.

Whoever said, “It takes an army to move an army,” was not exaggerating. The team from Austin Honor Flight (as always), gave a magnificent weekend to the veterans of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. The work they put into every detail was tremendous, but worth every bit to see the faces of the men they were honoring. 

 It was a long-time dream come true for Jubilee, Faith, and me to be Honor Flight Guardians, and we are so grateful for the opportunity that Austin Honor Flight gave us to participate in this special event. As we have said a hundred times (and will say another hundred), the experience of escorting these dear veterans to their memorials, and for the first time, is truly unlike any other. The friendships we made will hopefully continue on past the Honor Flight, and the memories will last forever. One warning however: Once you've got the Honor Flight bug, it is impossible to get out of your system. 

Thus ends the story of "The Three Musketeers, Squadron 95, and their grand little adventure in D.C."

Post script: The name the, "Three Musketeers" came from Mr. Virden. Despite growing up in a family with six sisters, we quite dumbfounded him at times by our antics, thus he bequeathed us this charming name. 

"The Three Musketeers," "Squadron 95," and their grand little adventure in D.C., part 1

The last few months we've been a bit thin on the blogging part of Operation Meatball, mainly due to an increased busyness with work and life; so for anyone who has stuck around this long, we're going to try and catch you up on a few of the things OM has been doing this fall. To start off, one of the highest points of the year was our first Honor Flight as guardians. 

Now, if you’re not already familiar with Honor Flight, you should definitely google it, or go back and read some of the previous things we’ve written on it, because the Honor Flight program is one of our favorite organizations out there. Seriously, it is top of the list. Over the last year and a half we have had the privilege of spending time at the WWII Memorial to greet especially large numbers of Honor Flights and this is an experience like none other.

But to date, none of us had yet had the opportunity to go as guardians with an Honor Flight, which we knew would be the creme de la creme. Then, through a remarkable providence (and quite out of the blue), the opportunity arose for Jubilee, Faith, and me to became official Honor Flight Guardians with Austin Honor Flight. We were given the date and told that the three of us were to be assigned to two WWII veterans, both 95 years of age. Well, you can imagine the excitement and anticipation this gave us. By the time we arrived at the airport on the travel day, we were quite busting at the seams.

(l-r) Faith, Mr.Covill (95), Liberty, Mr. Virden (95), and Jubilee. All set and ready to go!

(l-r) Faith, Mr.Covill (95), Liberty, Mr. Virden (95), and Jubilee. All set and ready to go!

When we thought we could hardly wait any longer, our veterans arrived and we were introduced to our two “dates” for the weekend: Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill. With some time to kill before boarding, we pummeled our new friends with five thousand questions. We learned quickly that they were both Air Force veterans, one an electrical engineer, the other a pilot. Well, with such similarities (not to mention years) Jube, Faith, and I immediately determined that we would have to adopt a nickname for our delightful little party of Texans. This would be forthcoming, but it was time to head out.

For the last flight of the season, Austin Honor Flight took a group of about 37 veterans: 7 WWII, 6 Korean War, and 24 Vietnam veterans. Added to that were the numerous guardians and staff of Austin Honor Flight, making quite a nice size group of wonderful individuals. 

Jubilee and Mr. Covill

One of the best parts about Honor Flight is the great lengths they go to “showing honor to whom honor is due.” Many of the veterans (WWII, Korean, and Vietnam alike), who traveled with us had never been properly thanked or shown the appreciation due them for the services they gave to their country. Because of this there were many scars that, though somewhat healed over time, still occasionally flared up and caused sores; whether it was guilt about comrades who never made it home for the WWII vets, horrible memories of the fierce fighting in Korea for an unacknowledged war, or bitterness felt by the Vietnam vets for the shameful way they were treated after returning home from a war that they didn’t fight of their own volition. However, this was just about to change, and boy did they have a surprise in for them!

As we made our way past security, we all lined up to head to the departure gate. Suddenly, the magnificent drones of the bagpipes announced to everyone, “let the party begin.” (p.s. for those who don’t love the bagpipes, I’m afraid you are missing out on a bit of heaven). Now, if you have ever had to walk from one end of an airport terminal to the other, believe me it is a long and tedious walk. But this day it wasn’t; for crowding every single inch of the terminal were hundreds and hundreds (maybe even a thousand) of clapping, cheering, crying, hurrahing, and more clapping people. Literally, not a single person was left out. The love shown to the veterans was unequaled.

When we got to the gate, there were a few more Honor Flight ceremonial formalities to go through, including the singing of the National Anthem. If there was anyone who made it through the parade of honor without shedding a tear -no longer. It would be safe to say that there was hardly a dry eye in our entire group of veterans. How can you resist a tear or two when you are surrounded by brothers in arms who are all devoted to their country, all singing her anthem so gloriously and with such passion! 

One of the Vietnam veterans later told me that the parade through the Austin Airport terminal was the highlight of the trip. Why? Because the physical and verbal abuses he had received from his fellow Americans after returning home from Vietnam were such that he wanted nothing to do with most people. In the last few years, when our soldiers returned from the Eastern fighting, he felt bitter and frustrated by the way they were received. It did not seem fair that they were welcomed home as heroes, and he still had to carry the shame of his war in Vietnam. But that was now changed. Walking down the terminal that day, he was greeted with probably the greatest expression of love and appreciation he had ever received, and it was from the people in his own hometown. The healing process had begun. 

Faith and Mr. Virden shortly before we departed the Austin Bergstrom International Airport

Faith and Mr. Virden shortly before we departed the Austin Bergstrom International Airport

If I were to go into every story from the Honor Flight, every person we met and talked with, it would take forever for me to write it up, and for you to read it. But hopefully, over time, I want to write up the stories in smaller, more chewable parts. Stories like, “The Granger Boys,” as we called them: a set of five friends from Vietnam who grew up together, served together, and would not go on the Honor Flight unless they could go together. Then stories like a sniper from the Battle of the Bulge, a special Korean War veteran, and oh, about 6 dozen more stories. 

Jubilee and Mr. Covill, about to board the Southwest Airlines flight. 

On arriving in D.C., the Honor Flight was greeted by more crowds and crowds of cheering people. Our veterans somehow managed to survive this, and as we gathered on the bus to go to the hotel, we were indeed a very merry group. Mr. Covill turned to me and said with great boyishness, “I’m so excited!” 

Liberty, Mr. Covill, and Jubilee

Dinner at the hotel was a great experience. The veterans were invited to stand up and share a story with us if they wished. Some did and some DID. I think excitement must loosen the tongue. There were more than a few moments of hilarity, but also a few near-tear jerker moments. One of the veterans had only shortly before learned that a close friend from the war in Vietnam, whom he had not seen in 40 years, was traveling on the same trip! Coincidences don’t happen, and the joy at this long lost friendship now found was very exciting to see.  

As the evening came to a close, our two dear veterans were in high spirits with great anticipation for the following day's events, but ready for a bit of rest (and so were we!).

Liberty, Mr. Virden, and Faith. TOO early in the morning! 

Liberty, Mr. Virden, and Faith. TOO early in the morning! 

In the morning, at breakfast (an early breakfast! This was on military time!), we announced to Mr. Virden and Mr. Covill that we had decided on a name for our little group. Considering their Air Force background, similar ages, and the size of our group, we had agreed that there was no better name than “Squadron 95.” Neither of them seemed to mind, so it stuck. For the rest of the trip whenever we had to go anywhere it was, “Let’s go, Squadron 95.” 

Read Part 2 here: The Three Musketeers," "Squadron 95," and their grand little adventure in D.C., part 2

"To D-Day and Back"

When I met Mr. Robert Bearden for the first time at the Reagan International Airport in the D.C. airport last September, I found out that he had been a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, a POW, and Head Yell Leader at The University of Texas. All these things were enough to leave me in awe, but little did I know about the truly amazing life he has led. 

Mr. Bearden joined the paratroops in 1942 after serving in the Texas National Guard since 1940. Becoming a paratrooper was not simply a routine decision for Bob Bearden; it was a proof of manhood.  He was not as big as the other guys and as a result he felt he needed to prove himself. The paratroops had a reputation for being the toughest of the tough. People stood in awe of them. That was a very desirable image for a guy whose stature had not been what he would have hoped; and there was no sneezing at the extra $50 a month for jumping out of an airplane. 

In 1943, the life of a paratrooper was far from ordinary. People say fact is stranger than fiction, and in Mr. Bearden’s case, I am inclined to agree. One day, he and a buddy came across a baboon tied with a chain in the middle of someone’s junkyard. It was customary for the units to have a mascot. One 507th unit had a jumping German Shepherd and another had a goat. If their company, Company H of the 507th, had a big baboon as their mascot, that would surpass everyone else’s. So they got the idea to bag it and take it back to barracks. After a valiant attempt to commandeer the furious monkey, they were forced to leave it, but not without a great number of scratches and cuts.

Mr. Bearden certainly did not live a dull life during his training and got into a good deal of mischief, but his war had hardly begun by June of 1944. On the evening of June 5th, after rigorous training in the U.S. and in England, Sergeant Robert Bearden was put on a plane and sent across the English Channel to be dropped over Normandy with the rest of the 82nd Airborne. Like so many of the Airborne units dropped over Normandy, he was separated from the rest of his men. After a more than intense few days on the ground in France, which included the battle for Fresville, an ear injury resulting in his first Purple Heart, and a recommendation for a DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) for saving a Lieutenant’s life, Sergeant Bearden was captured by the Germans and his experience as a POW began. 

Mr. Bearden, after multiple transfers, ended up in Stalag IIIC in Keustrin, Germany. In June of 1944, he weighed in at 163 pounds; just 90 days later he was officially registered with the Red Cross as a POW and was weighed in at a grand total of 98 pounds. 

Finally on January 31 1945, (a date which Mr. Bearden has never forgotten) he was liberated by the Russians. This was an ordeal in and of itself. The Russians had a signifiant hatred for the Germans, and as a result, he had to witness a great deal of brutality from his own liberators. Initially Sergeant Bearden’s plan was to travel and fight with the Russians, cross the Oder River, and then go through Berlin to ultimately end up with the American Forces. After seeing the way the Russians fought and the amount of Vodka they consumed, resulting in “freak” accidents that kept killing liberated GIs, he finally decided a Plan B was necessary or else he would end up in one of the “accidents” himself.  So on February 2, 1945, Plan B took affect. About 20 ex-POWS traveled along the Russian supply lines and hopefully, if they traveled far enough and long enough east, they would arrive back home. For Bob Bearden, that meant TEXAS! 

For a GI who has lost more than a third of his body weight and survived the brutality of the Germans as a POW to walk across Europe is no easy task. His journey took him through Germany, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Italy where he finally met up with the U.S. Army in Naples. Along the way, he had traveled by boxcar, horseback, buggy, farm wagon, bicycle, and many other forms of transport, but mainly he traveled, as he put it, by “the good old ‘Ankle Express.’” Having witnessed the travesties of war which had mostly been inflicted by the Russians, enough was enough, and the strain was too much. Several of the other GIs had had too much and lost it. Their breakdowns were really wearing on him and the others. He decided if it kept on like that, he would crack, too. He didn’t want to add to their strain, so he set out alone. In Poland he came across an abandoned department store where he not only found some sorely needed fur coats, but 60 pairs of silk stockings. These he stuffed down his newly acquired fur coats and used them as trading all the way home. “They were better than any coin of the realm.” 

He made it to Naples by way of Athens and Greece on a British ship, and from there took the U.S.S. West Point (a Coast Guard ship) arriving in Boston in April, 1945. When Sergeant Robert Bearden finally reached Texas, he was only 22 years old.  

Back in Texas, Mr. Bearden went on to be Head Yell Leader at The University of Texas. Amazingly enough, when we visited Mr. Bearden earlier this year, it occurred to us that his years at UT crossed over with our grandmother’s. He pulled out his year books, and low and behold, there she was! His response was, “I must have known her!”

Now 70 years after his service, Mr. Bearden has lived a full life. After giving his early years fighting to protect our country and seeing the very ugly face of war, he spent two very difficult years coming to terms with all he had seen, and ultimately found peace in Christ in the 1960s. Filled with compassion for others who struggled with heavy burdens, Mr. Bearden founded Christian Farms Treehouse, a work study program for men, expanded in 1978 to include women, who had made tragic mistakes but who could be given hope and new life through the help and guidance of people who truly cared about them and more importantly about their souls. Every time we have had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Bearden, hardly a word comes out of his mouth that is not full of gratitude and thankfulness to the Lord. 

Everything I have written has only given a slight glimpse into the life of Mr. Bearden and his service during the war. I have highlighted just a few events. But it is always wonderful when we can read the account from the man himself! And if you want to read his full story in his own words, I highly recommend his book To D-Day and Back from his website: www.boblbearden.com. It is really worth reading! 

For Mr. Bearden, his life can be put down to that of a giving one. In World War Two, he offered his life and service to his country: he performed his duties well. Then, he gave his life to the Lord, a willing sacrifice for whatever would be required. Following this, he devoted his life to giving and caring for those who had no hope, and he gave them a hope greater than any other: hope in the Lord.