This Veterans Day will mean more to me than in any of my previous years. Last month, I had the privilege to spend three days in Washington, D.C., with 63 World War II veterans.
These heroes that are the namesakes of the Greatest Generation were the honored guests of the eighth Central Valley Honor Flight. My dad, Jim Barton — who was raised in Three Rivers and now, at 91 years old, continues to reside here — was one of the veterans to experience this journey.
Jim was the second veteran from Three Rivers to participate in the Honor Flight, which provides these men and women with an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials built in their honor. Clancy Barlow of Three Rivers was an Honor Flight participant in June 2015 (www.kaweahcommonwealth.com/news/honor-flight-sponsors-3r-veteran).
The group toured the war memorials — World War II, Air Force, Navy, Marine (Iwo Jima), Korea, Vietnam — were guests of honor at a dinner prepared and served by the American Legion Post 276, visited the World War II exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and stopped in at the Women’s Military Service Museum.
Most of these veterans, now in their late 80s and 90s, had never been to the World War II Memorial, which was built in their honor but not completed until 2004, almost 60 years after the war ended.
After listening to a multitude of World War II stories and experiences, I have never been more proud and grateful for what these veterans have done for us. These 61 men and two women — who hailed from 34 cities and towns in 13 counties throughout California’s vast Central Valley — are the most heroic yet humble, courageous yet kind people I have ever had the opportunity to meet.
As I reported in a text message to home: “One of the most beautiful days of human interaction I’ve ever had.”
‘Known But to God’: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The final morning of the trip was spent at Arlington Cemetery. It was heart-wrenching to watch these veterans pay homage to their fallen comrades. After all, they came home while 400,000 others did not.
We attended the changing of the guard ceremony at Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“We meet in quiet commemoration…” said President John F. Kennedy at this location on Armistice Day (November 11) 1961. And that’s what Central Valley Honor Flight participants did on October 21, 2015.
Each day, every day, in sun or snow, a Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps back and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel places his weapon on the shoulder closest to the audience to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat. And the number 21 is used because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed: the 21-gun salute.
Exactly on the hour, a relief commander marched onto the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard. He asked for silence, and no one would dare defy that order.
The staff sergeant then conducted a white-glove inspection of the rifle of the incoming soldier, followed by a head-to-toe inspection of the sentinel himself. Then the relief commander and the relieving sentinel met the retiring sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the Tomb to make the switch.
“This entire trip was a fantastic experience,” said Jim. “But the Changing of the Guard was most impressive.”
Following this ceremony, two of the Central Valley Honor Flight’s veterans laid a wreath at the Tomb. Augie Chavez, 97, of Woodlake and Mildred Harrison, 95, of Ripon were selected for this solemn honor that concluded with a bugler playing “Taps.”
This is a somber ceremony for anyone in attendance. But to be there with 63 World War II veterans, including my dad, and experiencing Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier through their eyes, hearts, and minds is nothing short of incredible.
The dedication of Central Valley Honor Flight
There is much more to an Honor Flight than just getting on and off the plane. Many of these veterans are disabled, non-ambulatory, or suffering other effects of aging. There are guardians, either volunteer or a family member, who accompany the vets with a ratio of 1:1.
There is a huge crew of volunteers that makes the Central Valley Honor Flight happen. First and foremost, there is a team of medical professionals who volunteer their expertise. They are backed up by those responsible for keeping everyone safe: bus captains and safety officers. And this entire crew is led by the capable, good-natured, and cool-headed trip leader, Alan Perry of Fresno.
“Alan Perry and staff showed amazing skill in preparation for transportation, accommodations, and thoughtful personal care for three charter bus-fulls of us oldsters,” reported Jim.
Last month’s Honor Flight 8 was jam-packed with activities and fanfare for the Central Valley veterans, beginning with a 5:30 a.m. arrival at the old Castle Air Force Base in Atwater. It was an organized work of art.
There were news media and social media. There were active members of the military and schoolchildren. There was a school band, dignitaries, politicians, cheerleaders, ROTC, law-enforcement officers, and community members. There were flyovers, flags flying, banners waving, and music playing.
For three continuous days, from start to finish, these veterans received the accolades, appreciation, and acknowledgment they didn’t get when they came home from war 70 years ago.
“I enjoyed the camaraderie and entertainment with others during meals in the hotel dining room,” said Jim. “However, I will never forget the community send-off and welcome-back festivities at Atwater’s Castle Air Base.”
When our chartered plane was taxiing toward the runway for departure to D.C., I looked out the plane’s window toward buildings far removed from where the send-off party occurred. A lone man, far from the plane yet contrasted against the great expanse of tarmac, was standing in salute.
It was such a respectful gesture to this plane-load of 90-year-old heroes that I was overcome with emotion.
I attended as my dad’s travel guardian. But if a veteran doesn’t have a family member who is able to take the flight, there are well-trained guardians who will be assigned.
The Central Valley Honor Flight is a nonprofit organization that is funded so
lely by donations. Each trip costs about $175,000, but the flight is completely free for the vets.
The guardians are asked to provide a donation of $1,000. It is money well spent. And after that contribution, there is no need to touch your wallet again for the entire trip as the flight, lodging, meals, charter buses, and all planning and logistics are provided.
The only thing requested of the guardians — and this is no small matter — is to keep their veteran within arm’s length, literally, for the entire journey. And to say they are serious about this is an understatement.
Honor Flight T-shirts, windbreakers, hats, and duffle bags are provided, all in red for the veteran, blue for the guardian. This makes it hard to find one’s luggage but easy for anyone to tell if there is a veteran without a guardian nearby.
There have been eight trips consisting of more than 600 veterans, most who have been between 80 and 100 years old, and there hasn’t been a single fall or major incident.
And that’s not to say there isn’t ample opportunity for a crisis. There is a lot of walking involved (wheelchairs are provided at all venues for veterans who wish to use them), multiple times of getting on and off the buses, lots of standing in lines, and a nonstop, demanding schedule. But it is a remarkable experience for both veteran and guardian.
As the latter, I was moved to cry-out-loud tears several times. As these veterans arrived at various places, people would line up and cheer, applaud, salute, shake hands, or express other myriad means of gratitude.
Walking into the World War II Memorial, schoolchildren mobbed the veterans, giving them handmade cards and hugs and thank-yous. When leaving Arlington Cemetery, I stood aside while a group of kids surrounded my dad.
Tears were streaming down my face. A man standing next to me was also crying. It turned out that I was crying watching my dad interact with the children. He was crying watching his children interact with my dad. We sobbed in solidarity, honored to witness this living history event.
One need not be a family member to be a guardian. Anyone willing to donate the funds and the time may apply to assist a veteran.
Horrors of the Holocaust
This trip was 100 percent about the veterans. Everyone from the organizers to the media to the schoolchildren to the travel guardians was on the same page about that.
I will forever cherish this time spent with my dad. In my lifetime, I had heard some reminiscences about the war, but on this trip, I listened to him share so many other experiences with his fellow veterans. Maybe it’s because they are the only ones who can truly understand what occurred during that time.
What stands out among a trip of nonstop extraordinary events is that another of the veterans was in my dad’s same infantry division — the 89th. Once this was discovered, there was an instant bond, some astonishing tales, a conversation that went on long after everyone else left the dining room, and a new friendship forged. Although the two guardians were exhausted, the 90-something veterans were willing to talk all night, so we stood by and listened as our fathers relived and reflected on those days when they were young, scared, and far from home, yet dedicated to a common cause.
The 89th, known as the Rolling W, served during combat operations in Europe from March to May 1945. My dad was with the Signal Corps; Ralph Rush was a scout in a Reconnaissance and Intelligence platoon.
“We reminisced about our crossing of the Rhine River during our eastward march across Germany,” recalled Jim. “And Sergeant Rush was the first American into the horrible Ohrdruf concentration camp, a subcamp of the Buchenwald facility.”
In April 1945, Ohrdruf was the first Nazi concentration camp to be captured by American allies. This confirmed the horrors that had only been rumored previously and marked the beginning of the end of the Holocaust as advancing troops began liberating the camps.
My dad, too, shared his all-too-vivid memories of arriving with his company at a liberated camp, seeing the emaciated casualties, and providing them access to food.
Show of appreciation
I share this experience to urge all veterans of World War II to participate in the Honor Flight. If you are a veteran, or know of someone who is, contact Central Valley Honor Flight or one of the more than 100 other hubs throughout the U.S. that is nearest to where the vet resides, so they may be gifted with this “Final Mission With Honor.”
The ninth Central Valley Honor Flight trip is scheduled for April 2016. For local veterans, the application is online at www.cvhonorflight.org.
For those so inclined to get involved by being a guardian or to provide a financial donation, that, too, may be accomplished via the website.
Thank you, Veterans! We honor and pay tribute to you all on this Veterans Day and every day.