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

20180521_124300.jpg

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.

20180521_123731.jpg

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. 


IMG_20180526_134445_563.jpg

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!"


33690987_846642388861760_2437298643745636352_n.jpg

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!

IMG_20180527_213034_073.jpg

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.


IMG_20180528_104405_403.jpg

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!


IMG_20180527_080933_979.jpg

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.

33614535_1674439962672416_7187478854749913088_n.jpg

Support Operation Meatball

Armed Forces Day / Honor Flight Super Saturday

20180519_130154.jpg
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.

20180519_130225.jpg

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.


IMG_20180519_104935_734.jpg

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! 

20180519_130446.jpg

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

20180519_094041.jpg

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.

20180519_174022.jpg

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!

20180519_153123.jpg

 

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

33075261_1668920959890983_5693074610791120896_n.jpg

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!

20180519_165846.jpg

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

20180519_174142.jpg

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

20180519_165755.jpg

And the best dressed award goes to... 


Support Operation Meatball

For Our Vietnam Veterans

Today is Vietnam Veterans Day, so we are re-sharing an article from a couple of years ago about a few particular Nam vets who left quite an impact on us, and taught us it's never to late to say Thank You.

A slight diversion from our normal topic... this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Putting aside complicated politics and issues that came out of the war, when our fellas came home they were treated like trash. Many of the vets we've talked to thought that they were going off to fight Communism and save the world, just like their predecessors the WWII veterans.

Coming home, then, only to be welcomed by being spit on, having things thrown at them, and called "Baby Killers," & "Murderers," was very demoralizing and crushed the spirits of many. One vet in particular, Mr. Adam, told us that he was treated so poorly after returning, that he retreated to the confines of his military career; rarely leaving the base, and almost never communicating with people outside his Army life. In the early 2000s, when there was a boost to show proper appreciation for the troops overseas, he felt very bitter. 

Last year when we went as guardians on Austin Honor Flight, we had the pleasure of traveling with many Vietnam Veterans. Before the trip was halfway done most of them were in tears at the gratitude they were being shown -for the first time. After all these years it didn't seem possible for them, but it was! At the end of the trip, we asked one of the vets, Mr. D'Amore what those two days had meant to him. He said two words, "Healing and closure." After all these years, there was finally healing and closure.

In our group was a set of friends (including two pairs of brothers) who were all born and raised in the little town of Granger. They did everything together, even went off to war together. Serving their time overseas, they eventually all came home -together. We like to think of them as the "Granger Boys".

Last year they decided to sign up for an Honor Flight. Gathering at one of the houses, they filled out the applications and mailed them in one envelope to Austin Honor Flight. If they were going to do this, they wanted to do it together. And they did.

Throughout the whole Honor Flight they were practically inseparable. Shedding tears of relief and joy, remembering their comrades, and receiving the welcome they never had. "There was no fanfare," they told us, "We just stood around. This is our welcome home. It's like having a baby, we feel that good about it... when you're baby's born you have tears. And you have tears when you go through that airport." All their lives they had done everything together, and now they had finally received their welcome home -together. Welcome home Granger Boys.

Don't forget these men, the Veterans of Vietnam. They fought in a messy, messy war; many of them coming home with great scars. It's an easy thing to say thank you. As Mr. Mike said, "Just a handshake is worth ten times a medal!"

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.

IMG_20170723_195924_904.jpg

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. 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

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! 

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.

"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

An Unabashed Promotion of the Honor Flight Program

Some folks have asked us how we find ways to meet veterans, and though it is pretty broad, probably the best answer is Honor Flight. Honor Flight's mission is to bring veterans free of charge to their memorials in D.C. It is often times a life changing experience for these dear veterans, opening the door for them to speak about the war for the first time, bringing closure to the years of silent pain they endured as they wondered "Why me? Why did I make it out all right and so many didn't?" Through the HF program, we have had the most incredible opportunities for meeting the most wonderful people.

Last year, we went to the WWII Memorial in D.C. for a week to greet Honor Flights, the climax being a special Super Saturday when over 500 WWII veterans arrived at the Memorial on one day. For hours, busses of WWII veterans from all over the country arrived en masse. One from New York was hard to miss with their strong Yonkers accents and high energy. Another from Colorado came bringing a dignified excitement. Tennessee's veterans were country boys, with their deep southern accents. And if you had read the list of names from the Ohio flight, you would have known instantly that most of the veterans were first generation Americans. All ages (86-104), all backgrounds; such a diversity and such an experience! Some of the dear friends we made that day we would never have met had they not been brought together from all four corners of the U.S. through the wonderful people at Honor Flight. Each state has several hubs which send flights off at different times of the year.

For veteran and volunteer alike, it is truly a life-changing experience. If you can't be a guardian, at least come out to one of the HF "Welcome Home" celebrations. It is an awesome and emotional event; guaranteed you will not be the same!

70th Anniversary V-E Day in D.C.

Two week ago, we made a last minute trip up to the D.C. area to visit family and participate in the 70th anniversary V-E Day celebrations at the National World War Two Memorial. Last September was our first visit to the memorial, and ever since then we have been itching to get back. It was a fabulous week starting with a memorial service emceed by one of our favorite authors, Alex Kershaw, a fly over of some of the best WWII aircraft, hundreds of veterans, thousands of spectators, blistering heat, sore feet, melting lipstick, and happy hearts. (beware: lots of pictures below!)

After the celebrations on the 8th, the party continued out at the Udvar Hazy Center (National Air and Space Museum) where there was a living history camp with numerous jeeps and tents, a fly-in of a few of the planes from the previous day, live music performed by the superb United States Air Force Band, and, topping it off, we got to see our friends from DFW Honor Flight two days in a row. 

Over the following days, we had the best time greeting Honor Flights from South Carolina, Illinois, Arizona, and Puget Sound. We met a couple of these Honor Flights last year, so it was great to see some of their amazing staff again and meet their new veterans. Living down at the bottom of Texas, this is a wonderful opportunity to meet folks from so many different states. Each brings a unique element from their hometown, with lots of memories and stories to share. It is really remarkable the affect the WWII Memorial has on some of these dear folks. Seeing the wall of stars or the name of a battle they were a part of, written in stone, recalls to mind many dusty memories.

One of the veterans made a comment to us that we mentioned elsewhere but is well worth repeating. We were standing in front of the wall of gold stars (each representing 100 men and equaling a total of 4,048 gold stars), and, as we talked, he sort of turned and looked at the wall and said thoughtfully, “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 remark was brief, and he soon moved on to another topic, but later on, when we asked him about it he said, “I don’t like to talk about the war... It was in the middle of a fight, and I moved over and my buddy was hit by a grenade right where I had been.” The brevity of his comment made it all the more impactful. In just a few words he communicated a tremendous depth of feeling such that anything more might have been too much.

It was a lovely and memorable week for us and the veterans up there. The Honor Flight staff and the wonderful people who volunteer their time at the Memorial greeting Honor Flights with smiles, hugs, motorcycles, and dancing add so much to the experience, and the veterans go home with pleasant memories of their trip to D.C. 

Guest Post Madisson Solid: Honor Flight Weekend in Washington DC

Faith had the honor of singing "God Bless America" with the Honor Flight from her own home state -Texas.

My very good friend Madisson Solid flew out to D.C. to be with us for the weekend of Honor Flights. It was a real treat for us to have her with us. She is a lovely person to be around, and I can truly say we would not have accomplished half as much as we did without her up there to be with us.  She has very kindly written a guest blogpost for us which gives a great overview of the weekend. Enjoy! -Liberty


Honor Flight Weekend in Washington, D.C.

Madisson Solid

Going to Washington, D.C. on an Honor Flight is a once-in-a-lifetime event for a veteran - whether WWII, Korea, or Vietnam. Being given this opportunity means so much to these men, and it’s a small way we can show our gratitude by recognizing and thanking them for their service and sacrifice. 

This veteran Jubilee is greeting is wearing his original uniform from WWII.

On Thursday, it was raining and the interesting thing was to see how the rain made everything all the more sobering. As we handed each veteran a rose, we’d grasp their hand and say, “thank you.” 

Madisson shakes the hand of WWII veteran Bill Marx from Honor Flight Dallas/Fort Worth

We met dear Mr. Morrison (a Korean veteran), who talked with us and told us stories throughout his time at the memorial. Faith was able to sing him, which we could see on his face he throughly enjoyed.

Mr. Morrison walks and talks with us on his way to the bus. 

Something we noticed this day, and the days following, was that many veterans pushed their own wheelchairs into the memorial, insisting on walking in. That just tugs at one’s heartstrings. 

The contrast on Friday was amazing. It was a clear day full of sunshine. After welcoming the last bus of veterans for the day and waving goodbye, we went to Reagan International Airport to welcome the Austin, Texas Honor Flight who would be visiting the memorial the following morning.

One dear WWII veteran started crying after Faith said thank you and handed him a rose. He told us that on his way to D.C., he was so depressed about the road America has gone down, realizing we’re losing our freedoms and everything he and his friends fought and died for 70 years ago. But when he saw us, the next generation, caring about history and the men who fought for our freedoms, it brought tears to his eyes and he said it gave him a renewed hope in America.

Faith had the wonderful opportunity to go down the line of veterans singing their favorite songs while they waited for the bus to take them to their hotel. 

In preparation for Super Saturday, we purchased 46 dozen roses, and by the end of the day, we only had a few roses left. Can you imagine that many dear veterans in one place on one day? 

Saturday was so amazing; a day I will remember for the rest of my life. 580 veterans from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam were present at the memorial all throughout the day on Saturday. Wow. It’s so difficult to find the proper words to describe this day.

Handing them a rose, we would grasp their hand and say thank you. The impact of the roses was incredible - one would never think a simple flower could bring such joy and open the door so easily to wonderful conversation.

This kind man had brought a framed picture of himself and his friend from the war. 

It was so sweet to see the Austin veterans we had met the evening before at the airport, holding the roses we had given them the night before. 

Mr. Andy Bardagjy from Honor Flight: Austin, Texas. We were able to greet him at the airport, and then again at the memorial.  (photo credit: Tom Wince)

Virginia, being the cutie pie of the bunch, literally stole the show. The veterans adored her. She was so sweet and smiley to them, and I’m sure she received a special place in all their hearts. Unfortunately, we all can’t be cute little blonde seven-year olds! 

Virginia and Mr. Lyndon Benshoof

The last WWII veteran we met and talked to on this wonderfully full day was Mr. Cochran from Texas. In 1942 he joined the Navy and was a mechanic on the U.S.S. Puffer. He married his wife Bonnie in 1943 when she was 15 and he 19.

Mr. Cochran is pictured here in the wheelchair. His wife, Bonnie, passed away last November after 71 years of marriage. The sweet woman next to Mr. Cochran is 99 years old and very spunky!

They were married 71 years, until she passed away last November. Isn’t that so incredible? 71 years! We could tell he really missed her - he choked up when talking about her. Two of his grandsons accompanied him to DC. Such lovely people. My heart was so full as we left the memorial that evening, after welcoming, thanking, and hugging all those sweet, dear veterans. 

Washington state was the only flight on Sunday, and I’m so glad we were there to greet them. I can only say it was another wonderful, blessed day and we met dear Mr. McGuirk and his son. It was such a good way to end our time in D.C. I can’t imagine us having missed it.  

Mr. McGuirk tells Madisson goodbye at the bus. 

I cannot imagine how brave a person must be to be in harm’s way or dedicate one’s life to protect people he has never met. From the bottom of our hearts we thanked them for their courage, self-sacrifice, and bravery. We thanked them for their service to our country and for putting their lives at stake to protect the freedoms we hold so dearly. We thanked them for believing in the stars and stripes. America is eternally blessed for the presence of men like these who believe liberty is always worth fighting for.

These veterans (whether WWII, Korea, or Vietnam) didn’t fight to receive a thank you. They didn’t risk their lives for this monument in D.C. To be on an Honor Flight is an incredible opportunity and, not to mention, honor.

We met Mr. Cason at the memorial, and had the privilege of visiting him at his residence a few days later. 

These veterans would have never asked for an honor like this, but you can see on their faces; it means the world to them. I hope and pray that we were able to convey, albeit inadequately, the gratitude and love we have for each one of them. 

I’m so glad I went. It was so humbling, thrilling, sobering, and incredible all at the same time. The veterans are always on my mind, and I know they’ve left a lasting impression on my heart.

STEPHEN R. BROWN PHOTOGRAPHY: HONOR FLIGHT SUPER SATURDAY: SEPT 27, 2014 &emdash;

(above photo credit: Stephen R. Brown Photography. The amazing Washington photographer. http://stephenbrownstudio.com/ )

Week of Honor Flights: Highlights from Flights Ohio, Ilionois, and Arizona

We are just a couple days in and we have met so many wonderful men at the WWII Memorial. The Honor Flight program has given a truly meaningful gift to these veterans by bringing them out to D.C. to see the memorial created for them. We have loved talking with them and finding out a little bit about their service and their life. Each one of these men, whether they are a WWII, Korea, or Vietnam veteran, has a unique and important story they are just waiting to be asked about.

At some point during Honor Flight that comes to the memorial, all the veterans line up for a picture. It is one of the most incredible picture experiences we have ever watched: to see so much living  history, pulled together for a brief moment in time before dispersing, never to meet them again. . .old men who were once strapping young boys with the world at their feet and a mission to save it. Now, they are brought to the memorial at the end of their life, grey-haired and in wheel chairs, but with a fighting spirit still in them having laid the world at the feet of the next generation.

During WWII, mothers who had a son in the war would hang a blue star in the window or on the door. Later if the son was killed, a gold star replaced the blue one.. There are over 4000 gold stars on the wall at the WWII memorial. Each star represents approximately 100 soldiers who died during the war. When the veterans come to the memorial, this wall is very important to them. 

Mr. Burch learned the bag pipes four years ago to quit smoking. One of his favorites was Danny Boy so Faith got to sing it to him!

Virginia has become the mascot for the veterans. 

Mr. Watling was stationed on a ship that was rather unusual compared to most Navy vessels. It was made of wood and approximately 132 feet long. He said "It was like a cork bobbing around in the water."

Mr. Ditton told us he was practically born in the saddle. He got his first horse when he was 6 years old and road it to and from school very day.

Mr. Ashley (Right) was a chemist's mate in the Pacific.  After making it on to Tarawa during the invasion he helped to put up the hospital there. Mr. Ashley is the first "medic" we have had the privilege to meet.

Mr. Robert Lake turned 18 the day the Japanese surrendered and was shortly after sent to relieve the fatigued, battle weary soldiers.  He showed us a newspaper clipping of his cousin who was killed in Korea.

Mr Vasen was stationed in Germany for almost a year. General Eisenhower passed in his limousine every day. Mr Vasen would salute each time. He never knew if "Ike" ever saw, but paid his respects nonetheless.

Honor Flights

We arrived in Washington DC last night. This week we are thrilled to be part of the group welcoming World War II veterans to D.C. The Honor Flights come in every week, carrying many WWII, Korea, and Vietnam veterans on a special trip to visit "their" Memorial in D.C.  We visited the memorial last night with a very special guide, John W. McCaskill, a National Park Service representative and World War II historian whom 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.

This morning we joined a group of folks meeting the East Iowa Honor Flight coming in to DCA. What a beautiful experience! From there we went to the National World War Two Memorial and had a wonderful time there visiting with some very special people.

Over the next week we will be having more regular updates and posts. So stay tuned. If you would like to see more photos than we will be posting here, you can sign up in the form below (make sure to put your full name with your email to be added).