Ronnie White served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in 1968, but it wasn’t until Desert Storm — 23 years later — that anyone thanked him for his military service.
So when a traffic cop Tuesday cleared suburban D.C. traffic during rush hour so he and 116 other veterans on an honor flight from Ohio could rush from monument to monument, White was something close to elated.
“This is the parade we didn’t get to have,” the Columbus resident, 73, said with a grin.
How do you properly express gratitude to someone willing to sacrifice so much? It’s a question with no appropriate answer, but 69 central Ohio volunteers gave it a try on Tuesday, ushering four World War II veterans, 20 Korean War vets, 6 Korean and Vietnam vets and 87 Vietnam veterans from Columbus to D.C. then from Iwo Jima to Arlington National Cemetery to the World War II monument, the Korean War Monument and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – a daunting schedule for the most aggressive D.C. traveler, much less a group which counted a 95–year–old among them.
It is an act of gratitude that the group is attacking with increased urgency: One veteran who had planned to be on the trip died about a week ago, and many are in frail health. Airport officials at Washington Reagan National Airport say they see an average of two honor flights from around the country a day, a traffic jam of an attempt to get older veterans to D.C. while they can.
On Tuesday, the Columbus-area veterans stepped off the plane in D.C. to the greetings of a four-piece band, a cadre of volunteers and Rep. Steve Stivers, R–Upper Arlington, who shook hands with them and thanked them as they stepped off the jetway and into an airport ringing with applause.
For White, it was a poignant moment: He still isn’t used to gratitude. It’s one of the reasons his wife urged him to go on the Honor Flight. Vietnam was a polarizing war, and Vietnam veterans came home individually, not with their units; many still remember the loneliness of coming home to little recognition.
‘People turned their back on me,” said Vietnam veteran Dwight Williams of Columbus. “They’d turn around to avoid me.”
“When we came back, it was like, nobody really cared what we did,” said Andy Arendas of Youngstown, another Vietnam veteran. “Now the general public is starting to realize that a lot of guys made a lot of sacrifices.”
That gratitude was evident Tuesday.
School groups visiting Arlington chatted amiably with veterans in wheelchairs, with one middle-school boy griping that he missed his chance to talk to a vet.
A handful of tourists gave the veterans the rock star treatment, asking to take selfies with them. More than a few veterans took O-H-I-O photos with the Washington monument, because that’s what Ohioans do. Among them: Three of the four Sweeney brothers of Columbus, all who served during the Vietnam era and made the trip together.
“It’s an honor for me to drive you guys,” one of the drivers of the four buses hired to shuttle the veterans around told the Ohio veterans.
“Thank you for your service,” said a passerby at the Korean War Memorial. “Ya’ll make me proud to be an American.”
That passerby’s thank you interrupted a raucous trip down memory lane between Bob Hawk, 87, of Mt. Gilead and Perry Hunt, 87, of Parkersburg, West Virginia, two Korean War veterans who met in basic training. They were separated when they went into combat, but one night, Hawk got wind that Hunt was also in Seoul, so he did what any reasonable friend would do: He pulled him over in the cop car he was driving.
Then he got permission from Hunt’s superior to entertain his friend for a few days in Seoul. They went home, but reunited 20 years later, by chance, in the parking lot of the Columbus zoo.
Now, 66 years after they’d met, they were reliving old times on a whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C. Hawk talked Hunt into going, and the two reminisced joyously in front of a memorial to a war they fought in when they were basically boys.
What did Hawk think of the memorial? The chatty veteran was suddenly at a loss for words. “It’s very…” he said, but didn’t finish the sentence.
“I’m glad I made it this time,” he said, looking at the statues of soldiers reenacting a war that ended decades ago. “I don’t know that I’ll ever get to do it again.”