On Oct. 23, an American Airlines Airbus touched down at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., and taxied through a water cannon salute from the airport fire department to a terminal packed with well-wishers.
The plane, which left Lafayette’s airport that morning, was the 600th in the Honor Flight program, and several of the veterans being honored were Kankakee Valley REMC members.
The Honor Flight program began in 2005 as a way to thank World War II veterans for their selfless service, and quickly expanded to include vets from the Korean and Vietnam eras. The 600th flight carried three WWII vets, 33 Korean vets, and 45 vets from Vietnam, along with a pair of Gold Star Mothers.
Their day began with a 6 a.m. breakfast in a hangar in Lafayette. “We started to eat, and all-of-a sudden there was this loud music,” recalled Don Roberts, a Hebron dentist who served as an Army captain from 1966 to 1968. “I looked around, and here’s the Purdue band, the Golden Girl, and the Silver Twins … at 6 in the morning!”
Valparaiso resident Phil Christenson, who served in Phu Bai and Da Nang from 1969 to 1971, said he was overwhelmed by the reception in Washington. “The day was just jam-packed with stuff, but they gave us plenty of time around the memorials,” he said. The group visited the WWII, Korean and Vietnam veterans memorials, as well as Arlington National Cemetery.
Raymond Tolson Jr., a Knox-area resident who served in the Air Force Security Service during the Vietnam years, was particularly impressed by the Korean War Veterans Memorial. “They had 19 statues of soldiers in capes with their weapons and bayonets, crouching like they were trying to detect a minefield,” he recalled.
When the group visited the memorial, a delegation of Korean diplomats walked over and bowed to the visiting veterans in a display of appreciation and respect.
The group was led around the city in four tour buses, guided by police escorts on motorcycles. “Once the buses started moving, we never slowed down,” explained Roberts. “There wasn’t a stoplight that stopped us. There was one area that was blocked by pylons, and the motorcycle officer kicked the pylons out of the way for us. Everyone we saw was grateful, thanking us for our service.”
For North Judson resident John Collins, who served with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1965 to 1971, the stop at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was particularly touching. His best friend from high school, Clyde Minix, was the first Starke County resident to fall in that war. His name is carved in the dark granite. “He wanted me to go in with him, and I didn’t go,” Collins recalled. “It probably saved my life.”
Tolson also found the name of a high school friend who was killed in 1966.
One of the most meaningful moments came at the Tomb of the Unknowns, where the group helped in a wreath-laying ceremony. Hebron-area resident Dale Lytle, who served 13 months in Vietnam with the Army, was one of the four vets who participated. “I had seen it on television, but it’s different being there in person,” he said. “I was kind of nervous, because I didn’t want to screw it up.” Lytle guided a wheelchair-bound vet to the Tomb, where they presented the wreath to the guard.
Upon their return to the airport in Washington to begin the trip home, the vets were once again met by crowds, some of whom had a special greeting for the men. “Both cheeks and my forehead were covered with lipstick,” Roberts chuckled. “When I got on the plane, my friend said I better not go home like that!” But more surprises were to follow.
Once the return flight was airborne, someone yelled, “Mail call!” Roberts was stunned. “I said what do you mean, ‘mail call’? They came around with all these envelopes full of cards and letters.”
Lytle said he received 106 pieces of mail thanking him for serving his country. Another loud and celebratory reception awaited them upon their 8:20 p.m. landing in Lafayette.
All five REMC members expressed appreciation for the Kankakee Valley REMC’s support and admiration for the work that went into the flight. And they all said they’ve been urging other vets they know to sign up for future flights.