GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - It is difficult to put into words what the Honor Flight meant to me, but I'm going to try. It is definitely a day that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
I picked my grandfather up bright and early, or should I say dark and early. It was 4:30am when we headed to the airport. As we turned down the airport road, I saw lots of blue lights. I said to my grandfather, "I wonder what is going on up there?" But to our surprise, it was a line of police cars with their sirens on to salute the World War II Veterans. Wow! What a way to start the day. From that moment, I knew it was going to be a day full of surprises.
Mechanical problems delayed the plane for a few hours, but the time was a great opportunity to be able to go around and talk with some of the veterans. All 94 of those taking the Honor Flight are amazing, all sharing stories of the war and also cracking plenty of jokes. They are so full of life and were all so excited for the day that had been long overdue for these heroes.
We made it to Washington, D.C. and I had no idea there would be such a welcome, even after being two hours late! On the runway, two fire trucks met us with a water cannon salute, which is the highest honor in the world of airlines. It's usually reserved for retiring pilots. Then walking out of the plane, people lined the waiting area of the airport, some were playing music, others were holding balloons. One man was holding newspapers from the day the war ended.
As the veterans made their way off the plane, everyone was clapping and shaking their hands thanking them for their service. The man with the newspapers was telling the veterans, "Thank you for bringing peace to our country." Even writing this it still brings tears to my eyes. These brave men and women were finally getting the recognition and honor they deserved back in 1945, and to be able to experience it with them was an honor I can't even describe.
After every part of the trip, me being the journalist that I am, I interviewed my grandfather with my cell phone. I asked him about the experience at the airport and his words were, "That was impressive, really. That was something I didn't expect at all."
We boarded the buses and headed to the World War II Memorial, the memorial built to honor the veterans I was surrounded by. Stepping off the bus, we were met by Representative Steven Palazzo and Senator Roger Wicker. Seeing them take the time to come meet and thank these veterans and begin our day meant a lot. Talking to one of the organizers of the flight, he told me that none of the other states' congressmen meet their honor flights. Our congressmen from Mississippi were the only ones. To me, that says a lot. The veterans were all excited to talk and take pictures with them.
After a brief speech, bag pipes led us into the memorial and we were taken to the area marked Mississippi. There we had a moment of silence to remember those who didn't make it out of the war. Bowing my head, I was overcome with thoughts about those brave soldiers who died serving our country, who gave the ultimate sacrifice so we can live free today. Also standing behind my grandfather, I remember thinking how thankful I am to have him in my life.
Then we were free to walk around for a while. As I pushed my grandfather around, I read all the inscriptions on the monument out loud to him. There were quotes from Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. After each one, he would tell me about them and what it meant to him. My grandfather said walking around the World War II Memorial and reading the inscriptions was his favorite part of the day.
Then we stopped at the Wall of Freedom. Seeing the more than 4,000 stars, each representing 100 Americans who died, really puts things into perspective.
Since we were a bit behind schedule, we drove past a few memorials, but weren't able to get out. We were headed to Arlington National Cemetery.
As we pulled up to the cemetery it seemed like the head stones went on forever! It is definitely both an eye opening and sad sight to see. Heroes who served our country in every war are buried here. There are so many, in fact, if you are visiting a certain grave, you have to know the section, lot and grave number in order to find it.
We hopped off the bus and headed straight to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, just in time for the changing of the guard. It is so quiet there, you can hear a pin drop. Standing in front of the headstones is truly an experience, just to think about these soldiers who lost their lives for our country. While we may not know who they are, it's nice to know that every day they are guarded and given the utmost respect. The honor guard keeps watch on these graves 24/7. In fact, our tour guide told us when a hurricane was headed that way, the men refused to leave. Instead, they waited out the storm and continued to keep watch.
On this day, as the honor guard kept watch, they would tap their feet every so often to salute the World War II Veterans watching. Some of the men on the Honor Flight got the chance to be a part of the ceremony and lay a wreath in front of the tomb.
We headed back to the airport and as we walked to the gate again we were met with a band playing and lots of shaking hands. Several people were dressed in patriotic outfits and were dancing with the veterans. All the veterans seemed tired, but many of them found enough energy to do some dancing.
Just when you think the day is winding down, there were still more surprises to come. On the plane, the veterans were all given big envelopes filled with letters from local students thanking them for their service. It is so touching that the students took the time to do this. I read all the letters aloud to my grandfather. They were very heartfelt and many of them were a bit funny too. We had some great laughs. I think he was very moved by all the letters.
We landed back in Gulfport and were again met with a water cannon salute. This time there was also a line of soldiers saluting the plane as we pulled to the gate. As we stepped off the plane once again, I was overcome with emotion seeing the thousands of people waiting to welcome home these veterans.
I pushed my grandfather through a long line of current military members who saluted these men and women and shook their hands, thanking them for their service. Wow. All I could do is look at them, and as they were thanking my grandfather, I was thanking them!
As we made it out to the waiting area of the airport, there were bands playing and lots of people, including my grandmother, sister and mother. My grandfather did not know they were coming. He was excited to see them and we both couldn't wait to tell them all about our day.
But our day wasn't over just yet. We made our way to the bottom floor of the airport where people lined the entire walkway to thank the veterans! It was so overwhelming for me to see all these people show up on a Tuesday night just to pay their respect and to honor the veterans. The whole walk I had tears in my eyes and was so moved. My grandfather and all the other veterans were as well as they waved and shook hands. It was quite the welcome home, one that should have been awaiting these men and women many, many years ago when they returned from war.
I am so honored that I was able to meet all these wonderful and colorful veterans and to spend the day with them. And it was the biggest privilege to be able to spend it with my grandfather and to learn more about his time spent serving our country. It is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
The Honor Flight is truly an amazing program. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go to do so, both veterans and those who may have the opportunity to escort a veteran. It's an experience of a lifetime.
As my grandfather told me in one of my interviews with him, "By all means make arrangements to go on the first flight that you can."