There are moments in one's life that stand apart from the rest. There are magnificent highs and terrifying lows. But then there are those other moments when you know that something seemingly ordinary turns out to be, well, extraordinary. I had one such moment last weekend. It started out early on Saturday morning. I was meeting a co-worker and his wife and we were to drive to the World War II Memorial to meet an Honor Flight. If you are not aware of what Honor Flight is, you need to get acquainted with the program. There are several such organizations throughout the U.S. that raise money to bring vets to D.C. to see the monuments that pay tribute to individuals who served in the military in war time from WWII through Vietnam. The vets fly in together and then spend the day touring the memorials. It's a very long day for them, but well worth the trip. My friends and I were to act as "guardians" -- a term that seemed a bit awkward to me, as I would just as soon have been called "volunteer." On our particular Saturday tour of duty the weather didn't quite want to cooperate. It was cold, gloomy, rainy, and rather soggy from a week's worth of unrelenting rain. But, that was just one more challenge to be ignored.
We waited for the bus that picked the vets up at BWI Airport and transported them from Baltimore to the nation's capital. My friends were old pros at this as they've been doing this Honor Flight volunteering for several years. For me, it was a first and I had no idea what to expect. I just knew as I waited for the bus that perhaps I was too old to be volunteering. All the other D.C. volunteers were in their 20's and 30's. I immediately began to feel anxious. Would my own age be a hindrance in trying to "guide" these vets around the various monuments scattered throughout D.C. and Virginia? When the bus finally arrived and the vets disembarked I saw wonder and awe in their eyes much like that of children witnessing a Christmas tree for the first time. So many of these fine Americans were in wheelchairs and knew that this would probably be the last flight they would ever take. I knew that it would mean so much to them. What I didn't realize is just how much it would mean to me. They were in their 80's and 90's and my 60's didn't seem to bother them at all.
Lesson #1: You are never too old to volunteer. Sure, I could push a wheelchair.
The day was a mixture of wonderment and friendship. Yes, friendship. I was charged with escorting two Korean War vets throughout the day. One of my gentlemen seemed to prefer to stay on the bus and not get off at the various monuments. That was just fine. And then there was Chuck. He and I spent a wonderful day touring and chatting. He came with his camera and posed in front of the Ohio marker at the World War II Memorial. He was a proud Ohioan and wanted to stand proudly under the wreath signifying the 17th state admitted to the union.
Chuck told me that he had been reluctant to join the Honor Flight. In fact, he said that he really didn't feel that he'd earned his way. He didn't think his tour of duty during the Korean War was all that significant. I was taken aback. I told him that my opinion was that not only was his war service significant, but that he was a hero. Yes, hero is a word that is bandied about way too frequently, and often undeservedly. But that word is certainly one that is fitting for all the men and women who fought for our country.
Along the way, we met a vet at the Vietnam Memorial who had lost both his legs in Iraq. We stood and talked to him for quite some time about the closure of the memorials due to the temporary government shutdown. I was struck at that moment with the realization that what we talked about didn't really matter. What was important was watching Chuck engage with this fine, young Marine. When we had to leave to catch the bus to take us to the next memorial, I noticed Chuck lost in his own thoughts. He peered over his shoulder as the Marine wheeled away. I wondered what he was thinking, but chose not to ask. All I know is that he put his arm gently around my shoulder and whispered in my ear that he was really glad that he had come to Washington. He was making peace with a far-away war that I think he still fights.
To all the heroes who wore or wear the uniform of our country; to all the vets who served in any capacity -- you make us better people and we honor you. To my new friends at Dayton Honor Flight - I salute you for your tireless work. You are true "guardians" of the legacy of these men and women. And to Chuck, thank you for granting me the honor of spending a day with you. You are a hero and don't ever forget it.
Lesson #2: Thank a vet and send a donation to Honor Flights so that a vet can come to Washington to see these memorials erected in their honor.