My grandfather was a Veteran of World War II and Korea. He died in 1998, six years before the completion of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. As I was getting ready to leave my apartment on Saturday morning, I felt like I was getting ready to go greet him.
I was headed to Reagan National Airport for the arrival of several Honor Flights. The Honor Flight Network is a non-profit that transports Veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit their memorials. There is priority given to the most senior Vets—with service during World War II—and those with terminal illnesses.
The flights I was there to welcome came from Charlotte, North Carolina and southeast Minnesota, and each plane carried about 180 World War II Veterans. I didn’t quite know what to expect when I got to the gate, but it was a well-oiled machine: the bench seats had been moved aside, there were plastic chairs set out for the band, balloons, U.S. flags, service flags, and signs. The group of people gathered was about as diverse as you could imagine: young, old, Veterans, police officers, firefighters, Active Duty military, and their families.
I met some other VA employees while we all waited for touchdown, and they told me that as a “newbie,” I was probably going to cry. I’d anticipated that already. It started in the morning, wishing that one of the Veterans coming off the plane to see his memorial could have been my grandpa.
A voice over the loud speaker announced the first plane was wheels down, and invited anyone in the airport not loading a plane to head over to the gate. The band started warming up, and a crowd gathered, many of them waving flags. As the plane approached, two airport fire trucks formed an arch of water for it to roll under, and it arrived at the gate. Medical personnel deplaned first, and the band played the Star Spangled Banner.
The first Veteran came off in a wheel chair, his eyes wide as he took in the sites and sounds—music, flags, and a gate full of people waiting for him, eager to honor his service.
The handshakes, thank you’s and songs didn’t stop for the next 45 minutes as Veteran after Veteran came off the plane. Some were in wheelchairs, and had oxygen tanks. Some used walkers and others were able to move through the throngs of people with ease. Most were grinning, some flirted, and a few were so overwhelmed they cried. And as predicted, so did I.
Shaking their wrinkled and time-weathered hands, grasping their thin shoulders and looking into their smiling faces and watering eyes, it was like hugging my grandpa again. These Veterans, like my grandpa, were the embodiment of the Greatest Generation. It didn’t take much to make their day, and they didn’t come to D.C. for honor and recognition. But they sure loved us being there. To be honest, I don’t know if my grandpa would have signed up for an Honor Flight, knowing that a hundred people and a band would be waiting for him. He didn’t like a big fuss— but he would have taken it all in and appreciated it, smiled and shook hands with the crowd.
After the last Veteran deplaned, I turned and looked behind me and realized that a tunnel of people had formed, applauding the Veterans all the way out of the terminal as they made their way to the buses. It was the end of their arrival, and the start of a long day of touring.