WASHINGTON, DC (WLOX) - After a whirlwind tour of their memorial in Washington, DC, 91 Mississippi WWII veterans returned home Tuesday night. This was the sixth Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight, but Tuesday's trip was certainly different from all the others. The government shutdown had organizers and veterans worried about whether the memorial would be closed.
I had traveled to DC a few days ahead of the flight. On Tuesday morning, about 8:30, I walked from my hotel to the memorial site. What I saw certainly left me pleasantly surprised. Despite reports that workers would be on site erecting a barrier to keep people out, I found that was not the case.
In fact, the memorial was open, the fountains that add so much beauty to the place were flowing, and all appeared to be well. That's when I called flight organizers, who were about to take off from Gulfport with our WWII veterans. I passed along the news that everything was looking good.
When I returned to the memorial about two hours later, everything had changed. A barrier had been put up along the entire perimeter. I placed a second call to Honor Flight organizers to let them know the latest developments. Of course, they were disappointed with the news, but still determined to make this a very special journey for the WWII veterans.
When the buses arrived with our Mississippi folks just before 11:30, the only thing they could do was stand outside the barriers and glance into the memorial. The sight of that was enough to make you angry.
Our WWII veterans, who had never asked for any thanks after serving with bravery and honor, were being told to stay away from their memorial. This is the place that had taken 60 years after the war ended to be built, and the place that the Mississippi veterans had dreamed of seeing for years.
Our veterans, along with a group from the state of Iowa, could only look and take photos.
After an estimated 20 minutes, suddenly there was some commotion and the gates opened. Some members of Congress who had come to the site, including South Mississippi Congressman Steven Palazzo, decided to open the barricade.
Despite what has been reported, it was not a "stampede" to break down the barrier. Instead, it was an orderly procession that entered the site.
Suffice to say, the 91 Mississippi WWII veterans were thrilled to actually get into the memorial. That was abundantly evident in their words, and their smiles, as well as those of their respective guardians.
The trip then took the veterans to the Air Force Memorial, along with the Korean War memorial and the Vietnam Memorial Wall. As as been the case each trip, it ended with a Changing of the Guard ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Four of the Mississippi veterans were participants in the Laying of the Wreath ceremony.
Then, it was back to Reagan National, where they were again serenaded by some wonderful volunteers.
Finally, after the flight of about two hours, the flight touched down in Gulfport. There has always been a huge crowd there to greet the vets, but this one may have been the largest crowd yet. The cheers and applause echoed throughout the hallways of the airport. There were a lot of hugs, cheers and more than a few tears. Another successful Honor Flight had come to an end.
There will be one final trip on November 5, 2013.