Walking through the throngs of people last Wednesday night, one could almost be forgiven for mistaking the modest Fort Wayne airport for the sight of an enthusiastic Fourth of July or Memorial Day parade. Hundreds of people – young, old, and everywhere in between – filled the normally quiet and quaint airport terminal with American flags, banners, signs, flowers, and more. Although it was late on a Wednesday night, those in attendance were in a jovial mood as they smiled, hugged, laughed, and prepared to welcome home the men and women who were returning from our nation’s capital. Confused travelers who were arriving to the airport after their normal, everyday flights would look around and wonder what on Earth they were witnessing.
The trip was organized by Honor Flight Northeast Indiana, a chapter of the non-profit Honor Flight Network, which provides aging veterans with the honor and closure that many might not have received, even after many years had passed since their service. In 2016 alone, the network flew over 20,000 veterans to Washington DC. By the end of 2017 that number is expected to surpass 200,000 since its inception in 2005.
On Wednesday night, many veterans walked off the planes with a sense of pride and patriotism that one could assume they hadn’t felt in a long time. Watching the ever-dwindling number of proud World War II and Korean War veterans moving through the terminal, many in wheelchairs, I was taken aback by a deep sense of melancholy. Frail old men and women who wanted one more chance to pay respect to those they served with. Travelling to the hallowed ground in our nation’s Capital alongside their “guardian,” a family member or volunteer who accompanied them on their journey.
One veteran I spoke with, a Marine who fought in Vietnam in 1966-67, said that he’d heard of the Honor Flight organization before, but nothing could’ve prepared him for what he encountered at the airport.
“This is unreal,” he told me. “The public was so against the war when I got back that I never thought I’d see anything like this.” It became apparent throughout the course of our conversation that the emotion of the moment was getting to him. It was okay, I told him. It’s getting to me as well.
My generation of veterans, although we don’t like to admit it, is spoiled. We’ve enjoyed general public support both during our time in the military and as veterans, and while that same public’s support for the wars and policies that dictate troop movements and actions will ebb and flow, America’s support for its military has remained consistent throughout my generation. I’ve been in parades, I’ve been recognized, applauded, and thanked – as have many of my fellow veterans. We were fortunate in that regard.
So to see men who fought in a war as unpopular as Vietnam brought to tears by a long-overdue “Welcome Home” celebration created a very powerful, very emotional moment for those in attendance. As writer and Vietnam veteran Alan Cutter once wrote, “I flew back to my family in Maine; they were glad to see me, but not even they said ‘thank you’ or ‘welcome home’. Even if they had, I wouldn’t have known how to respond.”
Fort Wayne responded for these men. Whether they were big, burly bikers in leather vests covered in patches, or someone wearing a hat denoting which wars they were a part of, elderly folks who just wanted to wave the American flag, or young children sitting on their parents’ shoulders with handcrafted signs, they turned the small Fort Wayne International Airport, if only for one night, into a festive celebration of those who sacrificed so much and expected so little in return. We were all there together to honor those who epitomize the ideals that represent the best of this nation — honor, dedication and sacrifice.
Gen. George Washington, in his farewell address to his officers in New York in 1783, said, “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”
For the teary eyed veterans who walked through that airport, their return to Fort Wayne was glorious indeed, and in the highest traditions of this nation’s military order. It brought people together which, in today’s political and cultural climate, is becoming increasingly rare.
Events like this one light the path towards regaining a national unity, and, to once again quote Alan Cutter, “Thus begins the risky pathway of healing. Will you, beloved and fortunate citizen, do that duty for some returning warrior who has served our nation?”
For information about Honor Flight Northeast Indiana, please visit their website.
Tickets are on sale now for the “Dancing With The Heroes” fundraising event for Honor Flight Northeast Indiana, sponsored by the Fort Wayne Ballroom Company.