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DANIEL VAUGHAN: Traveling with an Honor Flight, reflecting on Memorial Day
Memorial Day is the unofficial kickoff for summer. The warm, three-day weekend is perfect for cookouts and camping, and as many Americans plan their summer vacations, summer blockbusters fill the theaters.
Taken all together, I don’t find anything wrong with Americans enjoying leisurely pursuits during the long Memorial Day weekend. The sacrifices of past generations made these weekends possible, and I believe they’d want us to enjoy this time.
But as part of that leisure time, we should stop, even just for a moment, to acknowledge those sacrifices — and teach future generations to do the same.
Recently, I was reminded of the sacrifices countless American men and women have made over the years when I flew out to visit friends from law school. I had purchased what felt like a red-eye flight to Baltimore, MD, where I had a connecting flight to a vacation destination with a beach.
Getting to the airport at 5 a.m. is a chore, especially with airport prices on caffeinated drinks. Still, I grabbed some breakfast, made it to my gate early, and settled in with my carry-on bags.
As I was working on a breakfast burrito, I noticed the gate area was filling up with older men and women, each wearing baseball caps depicting which war they’d served in. Three of the major conflicts of the 20th century had representation: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
For those that don’t know, the Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit group that organizes trips for veterans to visit war memorials in Washington built in their honor. The organization is currently giving priority to WWII veterans, and the tours are free of charge to the vets.
Altogether, there were about three dozen veterans representing the three conflicts, and Honor Flight and USO staff handed out coffee and snacks to the waiting servicemen. Due to space in the terminal, those in wheelchairs formed a large semi-circle around the gate entrance and started swapping stories with those seated at the gate.
I gave up my seat as the group assembled, fellowshipped, and spoke about their families, where they were stationed, and whether anyone remembered that one particularly loud staff sergeant.
At one point, the leader for Honor Flight stood up and held a small plastic Ziploc bag over his head and announced to everyone: “Okay, seniors! It’s that time! Everyone remember to take your morning pills! I can’t have any of your nurses or families getting mad if I forget pill time!”
There was a loud laugh at that, and everyone started swapping prescription stories and comparing who had the largest pill.
While the group stood around the gate, people at other gates started walking over and thanking each veteran for their service. They were soon joined by other arrivals, connecting flights, and airport employees, all thanking the vets.
As anyone who’s ever flown Southwest knows, the company doesn’t assign seating, so you end up getting whatever is available when you walk on with your boarding pass position. The gate attendant for Southwest was incredibly smart; she made sure to board the veterans first so they could sit next to each other.
No one complained at the gate, and several travelers I chatted with were pleased with the arrangement.
The flight itself was an uneventful one, with smooth skies between Nashville and Baltimore, but the flight attendants made it special with an announcement honoring the veterans on the flight.
When we landed, we were treated to another surprise. The Baltimore Fire Department had lined up two firetrucks on opposing sides of the runway. As we taxied to the gate, they gave the plane and the veterans onboard a water cannon salute, welcoming them to Baltimore.
Finally, as the veterans left the plane, each was gifted an American flag that they were meant to place at the war memorials. From there, our paths diverged, as they went on to D.C., and I continued to a connecting flight that was far less impactful than the Honor Flight I’d just had the privilege of flying.
Those monuments in D.C. are there to remind us of the sacrifices that were made to secure our freedom, and right to exist as a nation. For the veterans of that Honor Flight and other flights, those memorials hold far more personal meaning, as they knew the people listed on those walls — which reminds us of Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words in Gettysburg, PA decades ago:
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
We are the living, and it is up to us to remember, honor, and respect the sacrifices of those gone before us. Let us commit some time to recognizing that point this Memorial Day.
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