Honor Flight: 36 hours, a lifetime of memories
Virgil Crabtree leaned against the white marble, his camera grasped in his gnarled hand. He gazed around the massive World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.‘s National Mall.
“It’s so amazing,” the Iwo Jima survivor said with a hint of quiet awe in his voice. His eyes rested on the 4,000 stars, each representing 1,000 lives lost during the war. “You can see pictures of it, but you can’t grasp it, you know that?
“I had no idea.”
Crabtree, who served in the Marines, was one of 106 World War II veterans, all in their 80s and 90s, who went on a whirlwind tour to Washington with the Western Slope Honor Flight earlier this month.
Mingling with the green-shirted vets beneath the memorial’s columns were others garbed in matching yellow shirts. These were guardians, paying volunteers who guided, assisted, cared for, kept track of, and entertained the troops for the more than 4,000 miles during the 36-hour trip. Each guardian paid $950 to make the trip.
Some were family — wives, sons, daughters — of the veterans. Others were volunteers, strangers to the vets with whom they were paired.
The veterans and guardians met before dawn on Oct. 5 at Grand Junction Regional Airport as they prepared for their flight.
By 7 a.m., the tarmac was a hubbub of activity. Accompanied by melodies from a lone piper, law enforcement officers escorted each veteran individually from the terminal to the waiting U.S. Airways jet.
Baggage carriers loaded dozens of wheelchairs and walkers into the cargo hold. Firefighters transferred the people who use wheelchairs into carriers and carted them up the steps into the plane’s cabin, which the flight crew decked out in red, white and blue crepe paper and balloons.
Most of the veterans sat quietly aboard the aircraft, staring straight ahead or out the window.
As the plane picked up speed during takeoff, patrol cars, fire engines and ambulances lined the runway. Near each stood officers or firemen saluting.
The awestruck passengers broke into loud applause.
The atmosphere within the plane changed from solemn and respectful to lively and fun as flight attendants passed out food and guardians chatted with their vets and one another.
“It’s a huge party plane, with no booze,” observed guardian Judy Heath softly, a hint of amazement in her voice.
At Baltimore–Washington International Airport, an arc of water greeted the plane and its passengers. Otelia El-Amin of the U.S. Airways Honor Flight ground crew met each veteran and led the way up the ramp from the aircraft while waving a flag and announcing the veteran’s name. A small contingent waved flags inside the terminal as the ground crew dispensed handshakes and applause.
The veterans and their guardians boarded buses, off to Washington, D.C.
At Arlington National Cemetery and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the group received a surprise bonus, an invitation from Maj. Gen. Karl Horst to stay a little longer and watch a rare Rose Ceremony, as one of the honor guards was retiring that evening.
With darkness approaching, the group rode to the Marine Memorial. Beneath a slate gray sky, Crabtree climbed out of the bus with camera in hand to see the giant statue of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi.
This one was personal. He had been there. He had seen that flag flying on Iwo Jima more than 60 years ago. He had lost friends there.
The following morning the vets and guardians braved rush–hour traffic en route to the World War II Memorial. After a quick group picture, they had time to wander around the fountains and wreath-topped columns.
The 4,000 stars captured the most attention as the veterans paused by the reflecting pool.
Schoolchildren in small groups danced up to the veterans at the memorial, delivering cards thanking them for their service.
Down the mall, the group walked through the haunting Korean and Vietnam memorials, and a few climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial across the street. Most took the elevator.
The four buses whisked the group back to the Baltimore airport for the flight home.
About an hour before landing in Grand Junction, guardians surprised the veterans when they passed out to each veteran large envelopes filled with letters from family members, congressmen and schoolchildren.
The men and women who had started their Honor Flight so stoically were laughing and reading.
And more than a few were crying.
As the veterans left the plane in Grand Junction, the flashing lights of patrol cars and fire trucks lit the tarmac, and a motorcycle officer named Rob introduced himself to the veteran he was accompanying down the plane’s stairs and toward the waiting crowd inside.
“Did you have a good trip?” the officer asked the soldier.
“You bet!” the veteran replied, with a smile.
To donate: http://www.westernslopehonorflight.com