"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