Viewpoint: Rick MacMillan – A flight of honor

By RICK MACMILLAN

For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 07-09-2024 11:58 AM

“Wheels up,” I repeated to my longtime friend Bob as we took off from Baltimore/Washington Airport on Father’s Day.

It was 10 p.m. We were returning from a day spent with 60 other veterans in Washington, D.C., courtesy of the Honor Flight New England program. The organization’s mission is to “transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit those memorials dedicated to honoring their service and sacrifices.” Joseph F. Byron, a retired Manchester police officer, founded the nonprofit organization and joined the nationwide network of other Honor Flight organizations in 2009.

Since the inaugural flight, Honor Flight New England has provided a day’s experience in Washington for over 2,300 veterans on over 60 flights from Manchester, Boston and other New England hubs. While most of our number were Vietnam-era vets, there were Korean War veterans and two World War II vets (both over 100 years old) as well.

We assembled at Bellavance Beverage Company offices, on the south perimeter road at Manchester Regional Airport, at 5:30 in the morning. Each veteran was assigned a personal “guardian” – volunteers from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine – nurses, truck drivers, hospital staff, old and young. After loading in three buses, a brigade of some 100 motorcycle policemen and members of the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Club escorted us to the terminal. There, some 300 well-wishers, including a bagpipe band, greeted us to loud and sustained applause. If you have never threaded your way through a gauntlet of cheering, admiring people, it is an experience like no other.

Our flight to Baltimore International Airport (BIA) was delayed. Our pilot, upon inspecting the aircraft, deemed it unworthy to fly. A replacement plane had to be flown from BIA. Our scheduled 9:30 departure finally left at 11:30 a.m., landing at BIA at 1 p.m. There, we were greeted on the tarmac by an airport fire truck, which doused our plane from its water cannon.

Inside the terminal, airline staff and other commercial passengers gave us tumultuous applause as we wended our way through the terminal to waiting buses. It was hard not to look at these well-wishers and return their smiles and acknowledge their cheers. The hour-long journey to Washington brought us to the base of the Lincoln Memorial. On foot, we ventured down the path to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, where the names of every one of over 57,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen who lost their lives were chiseled in the marbled stone walls.

From there, we visited the Korean War Memorial, a remarkable tableau of 10 sculptured soldiers advancing as if to engage an enemy platoon. The names of South Korean collaborators who lost their lives in service of the allied forces were also listed on the memorial wall. Our last stop was the Air Force Memorial, tucked in between Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon, rising spires ascending upwards to the sky.  We were told that if the memorial had been in place on 9/11, that terrorist plane, which struck the Pentagon broadside, would have crashed into the memorial first, perhaps saving lives on that fateful day.

The bus ride back to BIA was silent, reflective. Special acknowledgment of our World War II companions and greeting cards sent from sons, daughters and grandchildren made our reflection all the more personal. Much of the value of this experience wasn’t in the sightseeing of our nation’s monuments, as many of us had seen these before. Rather it was in the sharing of stories of our times in the military, some joyous, some sad, but not regretted.

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While some in our number had volunteered, most were drafted. We served because we had no choice. Our younger “guardians” seemed to find this troubling. Similarly, they seemed detached from the revelation that while the nation greeted with praise and honor those returning from World War II and Korea, those who came back from Vietnam were scorned. My friend Bob shared his anguish that upon his return, he was admonished not to wear his uniform in town. Another companion said that his return flight landed purposely at 3 a.m. to avoid being the object of protesters’ derision.

I was fortunate. I was never deployed overseas. I was not directly exposed to rebuke by friends and neighbors, either. I was able to continue post-graduate pursuits. But the tumultuous greetings from those who lined our path that Father’s Day make me believe those who did feel humiliated served their country not in vain. And would do it again. So the wheels went up; that pilot left peeled paint somewhere in the sky, and we landed in Manchester a scant one hour later to some 100 greeters who cheered us into the airport lounge before we headed home.

Rick MacMillan is a Dublin resident.