My experience in Washington, D.C. with 35 veterans of war.
Last Friday evening, aboard a bus speeding down the highway somewhere between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, the reverent sound of 35 veterans of war singing “God Bless America” filled the coach. The significance of this instance was overwhelming, especially given that these men had just spent the day visiting the memorials of their respective wars in the nation’s capital—most of them seeing their memorials for the first time. Their voices rang out pure and true against the hum of the coach’s wheels on pavement, and in that moment I witnessed one of the most meaningful events of my life.
I was invited to be a part of this Honor Flight trip last Thanksgiving when I met Al Bailey and Kelley Cox of Honor Flight Dayton at a veterans’ dinner in Medway. After telling Al that my grandfather, a World War II veteran, had never seen the memorial in D.C. before his passing, he made me an offer I could not refuse. He invited me to accompany them on their May trip, and told me that my grandpa could still symbolically join us through their “Remembering Yesterday’s Heroes” program, in which his picture would be placed upon a pedestal at the WWII Memorial and then be photographed by a professional photographer, with copies sent out to my family and I for free. (They do this for every veteran of World War II, The Korean War, and Vietnam who have either passed away before seeing their memorial or those who are not able to attend due to health conditions, and they’ll send as many copies as you request).
We all arrived at the Dayton International Airport Friday morning around 3:30. Soon afterward, we were divided into two positions—veteran and guardian, with a guardian assigned to accompany each veteran throughout the entire trip. As a member of the press, I didn’t belong to either of these groups, and I was free to wander about as I pleased, but that soon changed.
Checking the list of names, I saw that Harold “Wayne” Beaty, a Korean War veteran, lived in Troy, which is part of our coverage area, as we recently launched the Troy Tribune newspaper. I introduced myself to Wayne, thinking I’d interview him a few times throughout the day, but we hit it off immediately, and I found myself drawn to his sincere smile and sense of humor. He said he’d been to D.C. several times before, as his son-in-law was stationed there, but he had never seen the Korean War Memorial.
Beaty was drafted on November 4, 1952—Election Day—at the age of 18. He was stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland, and although he was never sent overseas, he manned the radar there, scanning for possible Chinese or Russian attack. The United States became involved in the Korean War in July of 1950 after the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th Parallel into the democratic region of southern Korea. At the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was “divided” by two U.S. State Department aides at the 38th Parallel, with the democratic, American-Soviet alliance controlling the southern portion and Chinese and Russian forces backing the pro-communist North Koreans.
Many back-and-forth skirmishes across the parallel occurred, and over 33,000 American soldiers were killed during the war’s three years. The Korean War was the first conflict of the Cold War, with the United States’ involvement based heavily upon the spread of communism and the fear of war with China and Russia.
I asked Beaty if he was disappointed to have been drafted at such a young age and if he thought his life might have turned out differently had he not been drafted. “I’m not one to guess,” he said. “I thought it was time wasted, but it wasn’t. If I wasn’t drafted, I wouldn’t be here with everybody today, so I think it paid off,” said Beaty.
After being discharged from the Army, Beaty moved to Troy in 1958, where he and his wife Mary Lou raised three daughters—Barbara, Teresa (Tess), and Vickie. He said Mary Lou passed away last August. “We were married for 60 years and four months,” Beaty said wistfully. “She did a good job raising our girls, she really did,” he added. Beaty then worked as a meat cutter at Dinner Bell Foods, Incorporated in Troy for many years before retiring. He now has six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
Toward the end of the day, Beaty and I toured the Korean War Memorial together, captivated by the haunting images of 19 large, grey stone statues of soldiers whose faces bore a desolate, lost look in their eyes. Al Bailey told us that the original plan was to erect 38 soldiers in the memorial in reference to the 38th Parallel, but due to space constraints, that number was halved, leaving 19 statues scattered among a dense coniferous groundcover.
“Well, I’ve seen all I wanted to see now,” said Beaty quite contentedly. “I was not expecting all of this today, I really wasn’t.”
After all, we had been given a tour of D.C.’s finest sites in a matter of a few hours—touring the Marine/Iwo Jima Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, and the Vietnam Memorial as well as seeing the Lincoln Memorial, the Pentagon, and the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. And we couldn’t have been in better hands, as Al Bailey seems to be familiar with every nook and cranny of our nation’s capital. He even showed us the slight discoloration in the side of the Pentagon where the plane entered the building on September 11. That’s the thing with Al—he truly loves what he does, and it couldn’t be more evident. Several veterans even stopped to tell him so, as his enthusiasm is undeniable. Bailey is a Vietnam veteran who not only leads Honor Flight Dayton trips, but acts as a consultant for the Army as well.
Bailey stressed to the veterans the importance of reaching out to their friends, family, and fellow soldiers to put them in touch with Honor Flight Dayton. “We don’t know these guys are out there unless you tell us,” Bailey said. “We want to reach out to as many of these guys as we can so that they have the chance to be a part of what you just saw today.”
World War II veterans across the United States are dying at a rate of approximately 550 per day, and it is estimated that within 22 years, none of them will remain. We were fortunate enough to have 12 World War II veterans; 22 Korean War veterans, and one from Vietnam.
Veterans fly on Honor Flight free of charge, and are treated to breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as their itinerary. “We don’t care where you served, because you didn’t pick where you were stationed—someone else did that for you,” Bailey told the vets. “As long as you served during World War II, The Korean War, or Vietnam, and in that order, we’ll take you with us,” said Bailey. Guardians on the trip must pay their own way, but the veterans’ fare is covered by donations, which the organization is always accepting.
During our dinner after the majority of the day’s festivities, Wayne and I dined with Carol Watchorn, a longtime Honor Flight member and Mad River Township resident. During our meal, David Good approached us and told Watchorn how inspired he had been by the day’s events. Good had been assigned to serve as Guardian of Charles Dunwoody, our trip’s oldest veteran, who, at the age of 97, had served in the European Theater of World War II.
“Carol, this has been truly wonderful,” Good told her with tears in his eyes. “To watch Charles today at the memorials…it really put everything in perspective, and I want to thank you so much for doing this,” he said, causing everyone at the table to share in his tears of joy.
Watchorn responded by saying Honor Flight gives these veterans a source of hope and meaning—as they can sometimes feel as if their worth withers away over the years. “We had one man on a trip who had been given only a month to live. He couldn’t sit up straight in the morning before we left, and he would barely speak…you could tell he was just really down,” Watchorn said. “But by the end of the trip, he was sitting up straight and strong, and he was speaking with such an excitement in his voice. He’s going to live a lot longer now that he had this experience…these trips instill hope and meaning in their lives,” she said.
The trip instilled hope in me as well—hope for the next generation as hundreds of children stopped our veterans along the way and thanked them for their service, and hope that there are still genuinely good people among us—like the folks at Honor Flight. I met more genuinely kind, selfless people on that plane than I have in a lifetime, with their stories forever emblazoned into my pages—like the time at the Lincoln Memorial when Tony Marotta, a World War II Navy vet, shared his popcorn with me, and when Mike Himes, a Vietnam veteran from Fairborn fooled me by saying our coach had been taken away to be replaced with my notebook inside. Or the instance sitting at the gate in Dayton when Wayne told me he had been a meat cutter, which put me at ease because he reminded me of my own father, who had also worked as a meat cutter. I think I reminded Wayne of his daughters as well, and I am so thankful that the three of them are so actively involved in his life, because he is truly a gem.
I asked myself many times throughout the trip who was really being honored by Honor Flight. The veterans, obviously, were incredibly honored to enjoy the sights and sounds of D.C. among their peers, but it is my belief that the guardians, volunteers, and observers walked away from that trip with just as much pride—for we were the ones lucky enough to escort 35 men who helped save the world to the Capital of the United States of America. So fortunate were we to stand alongside the bravest generations and look up at the great granite stones representing the fact that their hard work and sacrifice has not gone unnoticed. I’m sure I’ll visit D.C. again someday, but I am quite certain that the other trips will not compare to my first experience with the city, when I first witnessed it with 35 soldiers at my side.
As we approach this Memorial Day, take just a few seconds out of your day to stop and shake the hand of a veteran if you see them out and about. Chances are, if they’re wearing the black hat with yellow lettering depicting their service, they’re proud of what they accomplished and won’t mind you stopping to thank them—I know very well that my grandfather welcomed it, and I’d thank him again in an instant if only I could. On behalf of my mother, my grandmother, and my uncles—thank you Al Bailey, Larry Blackmore, and Kelley Cox, for all you have done to honor my grandfather as well as all the other veterans who did not see their memorials in time. He would have loved to be a part of this trip—but I think we all know that in spirit, he really was.
Visit www.honorflightdayton.org to sign up for a trip or to act as a guardian or volunteer, or call (937) 322-4448 for more information. Those wishing to participate in the Remembering Yesterday’s Heroes program should contact Charlie Castilano at (937) 439-4125.