Ronnie White served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive of 1968, but it wasn’t until Desert Storm — 23 years later — that anyone thanked him for his military service.
So when a traffic cop cleared suburban D.C. streets during rush hour Tuesday so White and 116 other veterans on an Honor Flight from Ohio could travel from monument to monument, White was 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 Tuesday, ushering four World War II veterans, 20 Korean War vets, six Korean and Vietnam vets, and 87 Vietnam veterans from Columbus to Washington, D.C.
The group traveled from the flag-topped U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial to Arlington National Cemetery to the various war memorials for the veterans — a daunting schedule for the most aggressive D.C. traveler, much less a group that counted a 95–year–old among them.
It is an act of gratitude that Honor Flight is attacking with increased urgency: Many older military veterans are in frail health; one veteran who had planned to be on this trip died about a week ago.
Airport officials at Washington’s Reagan National Airport say they see an average of two Honor Flights from across the country a day — a traffic jam of an attempt to get older veterans to D.C. while they can.
The Columbus-area veterans stepped off the plane in Washington to the greetings of a four-piece band, a cadre of volunteers and U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, R–Upper Arlington, who shook hands with them and thanked them as they walked into an airport that was 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. Most don’t forget 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 thankfulness was evident Tuesday.
“It’s an honor for me to drive you guys,” a driver of one of the four buses that shuttled the Ohio veterans told them.
“Thank you for your service,” said a passerby at the Korean War Veterans Memorial. “Ya’ll make me proud to be an American.”
That random “thank you” interrupted a raucous trip down memory lane between Bob Hawk, 87, of Mount 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 also was in Seoul, Korea. 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.
After their deployments, they went their separate ways back in the United States. But they were reunited 20 years later, by chance, in the parking lot of the Columbus Zoo.
Now, 66 years after they met, they were reliving old times on the whirlwind Honor Flight tour. Hawk talked Hunt into going, and the two reminisced joyously in front of a memorial to a war they fought when they were just 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 troops from a war that ended decades ago. “I don’t know that I’ll ever get to do it again.”