Vietnam veterans finally getting the welcome home they deserve with Honor Flight

Honor Flights carrying fewer World War II veterans as time passes
Honor Flight veterans
Posted at 7:57 PM, May 25, 2023

WASHINGTON — What started with personal planes and a mission to get World War II veterans to the nation's capital is now changing as Honor Flight hits 18 years of serving those who serve.

Most recently, a chartered American Airlines plane took off from Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport and headed to Ronald Reagan International Airport in Washington D.C. Out of the 85 veterans on board, just two served during World War II. It’s a huge contrast from the launch of Honor Flight, wherein the entire aircraft was filled with WWII veterans heading to our capital to see the memorial finally completed in 2004.

For WWII veteran Bob Kester, it was the first flight ever in his life.

“Don’t tell me we’re 35,000 feet in the air,” he said sitting in his seat with both hands firmly on the armrests.

At the age of 96, sitting in a wheelchair in front of a field of gold stars at the World War II monument, he takes in the hushing sound of the waterfalls and the grand granite pillars and stone wreaths. It’s a place he never thought he would see.

“They waited long enough to build it, but they’ve done a wonderful job,” Kester said.

He served in Germany and France as a cleanup crew as he explained going door-to-door clearing out any remaining enemy soldiers.

“The people I served with, I still remember a lot of them,” Kester said. “It’s true that I am a veteran, but all these other fellows did a lot more than I did.”

He laid a wreath at the memorial with fellow World War II veteran and 96-year-old Bill Quarve of Fairfield, Ohio.

“I am proud of my generation,” Quarve said.

He served in the infantry from 1944 to 1946, taking part in the battle in Okinawa and the occupation of Japan. The visit to D.C. courtesy of Honor Flight Tri-State is a day he’ll treasure forever.

“Just to see something like this it’s great it’s amazing,” he said.

They are two of only a handful of World War II veterans remaining in the Tri-State area. Nationally, there are fewer than 147,000 still alive from the 16 million who served during the war, according to the World War II Memorial website. They report an average of 180 WWII-era veterans die each day.

As a result of the waning numbers, Vietnam War-era veterans are filling more seats on planes these days.

It’s a generation of veterans whose homecoming was often filled with hate and disrespect.

“I wasn’t very respected when I came back in 1969 from Vietnam,” said Tom Egner of Liberty Township. “People spit on me when we got off the plane in San Francisco they literally called us baby killers and spit on us.”

For him, the applause as he and others arrived inside the concourse at Ronald Reagan International was warmly welcomed.

“It’s quite an accomplishment to be here today and see that,” Egner said.

Egner is proud to have served his country as a Marine and get the chance to visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

“To be here with my fellow comrades who served in harm’s way it’s quite an honor,” he said.

For Pete Heiss, the trip to the nation’s memorials is nothing new. He served in D.C. at the White House under President Nixon something he was surprised with by his supervisor at the time.

“He said you’re going to be the first NCOIC of a four-man enlisted detail ever directly assigned to the White House to greet the president and his appointments and I was like are you talking to me,” Heiss recalled.

Even though he has visited the memorials before, there’s still a sincere personal response.

“To me, it’s tear-jerking. Being in the infantry for 13 months I don’t know how I came out unscathed, but I did a couple guys the new guys that replaced me in an ambush or something three of the guys didn’t make it back,” he said.

As the final World War II veterans take flight and the Korean War veterans follow close behind, Vietnam veteran David Fuhrman of Alexandria, Kentucky hopes younger families visiting the memorials of those who are no longer with us can understand the meaning behind the bronze, stone and steel.

“I’m hoping that’s what they learn, what commitment and honor is about,” Fuhrman said.

 You can find out to be a guardian for a veteran or apply for a veteran to take an Honor Flight by heading toHonor Flight Tri-state’s website.

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