MOSES LAKE — People turn out to send off the veterans going to Washington D.C. on an Honor Flight, and they turn out to welcome them home.
Steve Smith, Moses Lake, is a Vietnam veteran, and was one of the passengers on an Honor Flight April 30. The flight left from Spokane, and Smith was impressed with the crowd that came by to see them off – and even more with the crowd at the airport when they returned. “I would imagine over 2,000 people (at the airport) to greet that plane,” he said. Medical Lake High School brought its band and cheerleaders, and there were “Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, motorcycle groups – all walks of life.”
The Honor Flight program takes veterans on a tour of many of the major monuments in the nation’s capital: the memorials to World War II, Korea and Vietnam, the Lincoln Memorial, separate memorials for the different branches of the military, and Arlington National Cemetery, which hosts the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The trip is free to the veterans.
“There were 152 of us,” Smith said. “From all over the place.” Each group receives a special T-shirt during the trip, although one Navy veteran chose an alternative. A retired chief petty officer, the man “was in his full dress uniform” all day.
The tour didn’t stop at the Pentagon, but they drove by, and the scars of 21st-century conflict are visible from the road. “You can see the difference in the new bricks,” the stone used to repair the damage from the attack on Sept. 11.
Smith is a 1968 graduate of Moses Lake High School, and one of his classmates, Doug Straight, didn’t make it back and is still listed as missing in action. His name is on the Vietnam Memorial, “wall No. 6, eighth row down.”
Honor Flight organizers work to make sure veterans get an up-close look, even those who can’t walk. “They do a very good job of taking care of everybody.” Volunteers travel with each group to make sure vets can get around, but even with the help there was a lot of walking, Smith said.
“You can’t take enough pictures,” Smith said. He took so many the camera battery died, “and my phone filled up.”
The organizers saved one thing for the trip back. As the plane headed west, veterans were given a package of letters, some from family and friends, others from strangers. It’s “mail call,” Smith said. “Because GIs, we’re always looking for mail.”
Honor Flight organizers contact the families and ask them to write letters, and it’s not only family and friends. Smith’s packet included a letter from a Texas woman who writes to every Honor Flight participant, as well as letters from Spokane-area schoolchildren.
Smith was in Vietnam in 1970-71. “I was a cook, I was a truck driver, worked in the office” on a military base that was used by units rotating in and out of combat zones. A trip to Washington was something he probably wouldn’t do on his own, he said, so he applied for the Honor Flight. The Inland Northwest chapter serves people in eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana.
Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at email@example.com.