The Asheville Regional Airport is no stranger to the hustle and bustle of travelers eager to get to their destinations. But on this crisp September morning, excitement permeates the terminal as 93 Western North Carolina military veterans wait to board a very special flight to the nation’s capital.
The men are there under the auspices of Blue Ridge Honor Flight, a nonprofit that gives local veterans an all-expenses-paid trip to visit monuments built in their honor in Washington, D.C.
The anticipation in the room is contagious, as the servicemen mingle and share their stories. Today’s contingent consists of 84 Vietnam veterans, seven from the Korean War and two who served in World War II. Hailing from Asheville, Hendersonville, Canton, Candler and even Upstate South Carolina, all of them served in either the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines.
“There’s a special brotherhood,” says 22-year Army veteran Michael Halus of Asheville. “Every veteran has put their life on the line to fight for our nation and for the others.”
More than 60 volunteer chaperones, or “guardians,” are also preparing to board, along with a team of paramedics.
One of those chaperones is Army veteran Ben Maultsby, a Hendersonville resident who took part in a previous honor flight. And on this day, he’s remembering how he felt as an anxious 19-year-old landing in Vietnam for the first time.
“Sitting on the tarmac, I don’t know: You have mixed feelings, mixed emotions about it,” Maultsby recalls. “The desire to get this year over with and get home; who you’re going to be with, because you didn’t know any of that when you first arrive.”
Today, however, Maultsby is all smiles, knowing what lies in store for his fellow veterans as the trip unfolds.
“My father was a World War II veteran; he was in the Navy,” says Hendersonville native Jeff Miller, who founded HonorAir (now known as Blue Ridge Honor Flight) in 2006. “My mother was in high school during World War II, and her big brother was a pilot. He was killed in the war. I grew up in an extremely patriotic family in a very patriotic community; everybody in the neighborhood was a veteran.” Miller, who serves on the Hendersonville City Council, is not a veteran himself, but joins in on the trips to ensure that things go smoothly.
Miller’s father died unexpectedly in 2003, and three years later, his mother, who had Alzheimer’s, passed away as well. After that, says Miller, he found himself “in a really bad place.” But his parents’ deaths also opened the door to a fateful discovery.
“My mother always had this trunk in our house; it was usually at the end of their bed, and nobody ever touched it. Her brother that was killed in World War II built it for her,” Miller explains. “When she passed away, I opened that trunk and found this wealth of treasures.”
There were wartime letters from his father and uncle, along with flight logs and telegrams detailing the uncle’s death. The haul also included a diary his mother had kept during the four years that her husband and brother were away at war.
Besides enabling Miller to connect more deeply with his family’s history, these keepsakes spurred him to do more. And in the meantime, he’d gotten wind of Earl Morse, a retired Air Force pilot in Ohio who’d begun flying World War II veterans to Washington in small planes to see the sights and had recruited other pilots to help out.
Miller, however, was inspired to take the project to another level. “I just decided that since I couldn’t take my parents, I was going to try to take every World War II veteran from Henderson County up to see the memorial,” he explains. “I knew we weren’t going to do it with little planes: We were going to have to charter something big.”
And big it’s become. From humble beginnings, the program began to grow, funded entirely by private donations, community fundraisers and sponsorships, including some by Rotary Club chapters across Western North Carolina. In 2007, Miller and Morse merged their separate organizations into a nationwide venture called the Honor Flight Network, with 140 hubs in 45 states. As of the end of 2017, the network says it had flown over 200,000 veterans from across the country to Washington to experience the various war memorials. Today, two flights per year leave out of the Asheville Regional Airport at around $85,000 per flight. “When we came up with this idea, we threw it out there to the public to see what kind of support we could get, and I’ve just never seen anything like it,” says Miller. “I mean, there’s a lot of people working for good causes, and I’ve been involved in quite a few of them myself, but I’ve never seen anything that took off like this did.”
On the road
When the plane lands in Baltimore, applauding airport staff escort the veterans to four chartered buses stocked with water, snacks and wheelchairs for whoever might need one. As the buses approach Washington, a tour guide joins the riders and begins relating historical tidbits about the capital. The group, he explains, will have a police escort into the heart of the city, a practice usually reserved for the president and visiting foreign dignitaries.
As if on cue, two police SUVs drive to the head of the caravan, sirens blaring, signaling other drivers to make way for the buses. Suddenly, the daunting task of pushing through the daily commuter onslaught seems feasible. Both veterans and guardians laugh nervously, though, keeping a watchful eye on the road ahead as the buses cut through the ferocious D.C. traffic like a knife through room-temperature butter.
“I wanted to see the world,” 89-year-old Navy veteran George Schmitt recalls over the sounds of the sirens. “I was 18 when I joined. My mother wouldn’t sign for me so I had to wait for my 18th birthday.”
Schmitt, who lives an hour and a half southwest of Asheville in Highlands, went on to become one of the nearly 6 million men and women who served during the Korean War. Sometimes called “the Forgotten War” since North and South Korea never signed a peace treaty, the conflict claimed the lives of some 37,000 U.S. service members, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“We wanted them to see that it wasn’t the Forgotten War,” says Miller while reflecting on the veterans in the Honor Flight program. “We want to make sure that it’s not forgotten anymore.”
As the buses arrive in D.C., the veterans file out onto the National Mall, joining droves of tourists on hand to view the monuments. It’s unseasonably warm, but skies are blue as the servicemen gather on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Clark addresses them, acknowledging their sacrifices and commitment to their country. The veterans beam with pride as Clark presents each man with a “challenge coin,” a military tradition meant to convey respect and gratitude for exemplary efforts.
After that there’s a wreath-laying ceremony, to honor the fallen and celebrate victory, bravery and peace. Personnel from each war participate, including World War II veteran Ted Logan of Laurel Park; Canton resident Leroy Murray (Korean War); and Alfred Welch (Vietnam), a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Tourists pause to watch and photograph the presentation, offering words of thanks and respect to the men after the final wreath is placed.
Lost and found
By now it’s scorching hot, but there’s a big crowd at the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Hundreds of people walk slowly past the polished black granite monument, scanning the etched names in search of service members they once knew. Others simply offer quiet reverence for the more than 58,000 American lives lost.
Ed Hawes is on a mission, searching for the names of four men he served with who rank among the fallen. He’s armed with a printout of information he found online that shows each man’s military photo along with detailed instructions on where to find his name. Such guidance is essential, since the thousands of names are arranged not in alphabetical order or by date of birth but by the date of death.
Hawes scans the massive wall, looking down at the paper for reference, until he comes to David Rhodes. Pausing at the sight, Hawes takes a deep breath.
“It’s my first time and it’s pretty emotional,” he says. “That last one we just looked at, a bunch of us gave him a party the night before. He was only over there for a month and stepped on a land mine.”
“It’s an awesome memorial but it’s hard,” adds George Pullman of Arden, a veteran of the Navy Seabees. “Memories, there’s a lot of memories.”
Amid the memories, however, new connections begin to emerge. As the group moves through the Korean War Memorial, a cluster of 19 stainless steel statues of Army, Marine, Navy and Air Force members set among patches of juniper bushes, Marine Corps veterans Jim Fortune and Ronald Severs make a surprising discovery: Besides serving in Vietnam at the same time, they both graduated from Brevard High School. And with the number of Vietnam veterans dwindling, the unexpected connection feels especially welcome.
“There’s a lot around Brevard: You run into them everywhere,” says Fortune. “But the ranks are thinning out. It’s hard to believe it’s 50 years ago.”
Never too late
For many, however, the high point of the day comes when the buses reach the famed World War II Memorial, and having two veterans of that war along on the trip makes the occasion seem that much more remarkable. There are fewer than 500,000 of them still alive today, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports. And since the site wasn’t opened until 2004, many others never got the chance.
“Our focus initially was World War II veterans, because it was the last memorial built, 59 1/2 years after the war was over, so we had a very narrow window to work with to try to get as many as we could up there,” Miller explains.
But if the memorial was a long time coming, the end result is impressive. Granite pillars and bronze panels depicting battle scenes surround a big, glittering fountain.
“I loved it,” gushes 94-year-old Asheville resident Charlie Dobson, a former torpedo bomber pilot.
A hush falls over the assembled veterans as they enter Arlington National Cemetery. Dotted with identical white grave markers, the lush, grassy hills are the final resting place for more than 400,000 active-duty service members, veterans and their families.
The group gathers near the plaza at the base of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a large marble sarcophagus placed over the grave of an unidentified fallen serviceman from World War I. Adjacent to it are three slabs set into the plaza, marking the grave of a fallen serviceman from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, respectively. As the men and their chaperones watch in silence, uniformed soldiers conduct the changing of the guard, one of the military’s most revered ceremonies. There’s an overarching feeling of camaraderie among all the assembled veterans, regardless of when and where they served.
Paying the price
But as day turns into night, the caravan prepares to return to the mountains. Despite the early morning start and the long day of sightseeing, the energy on the plane is upbeat and tangible. Vietnam veterans Howard “Brown” Sparks Jr. and Michael Greene marvel at how the experience brought the two Canton residents together.
“What’s strange is that for 30-plus years, we’d been less than 5 miles from each other and never saw each other before,” Sparks remarks with a chuckle.
“He worked for Champion, the paper mill, and I worked for the railroad there,” Greene chimes in, laughing.
Still, a day of remembrance like this isn’t for everyone, the men reflect. For some, the thought of revisiting the trauma just seems like too much to bear.
“I know two or three guys that won’t even talk about it,” says Greene. “Now, they saw some harsh stuff — I mean, down and dirty. I tried to get my friend to come and he said, ‘No, I don’t want to remember.’”
“There’s definitely some that I know that would never be here,” adds Sparks, recounting his own experience. “We had been in a lot of ambush patrols. We got torn down real bad.”
More than 6,000 veterans die by suicide each year, according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report. Post-traumatic stress disorder is especially prevalent among Vietnam War veterans, with as many as 30% experiencing PTSD at some point in their lifetime.
“A lot of the PTSD is coming back now that I’ve slowed down,” Greene reveals. “I got out [of the service] one day and went to work the next day at the railroad. Got married, had children, was busy with my job. Now things have slowed down, I think more about it.”
Miller, meanwhile, says the sense of community that his organization fosters can serve as “a real healing factor” for veterans. “I’m not saying an honor flight is going to heal PTSD: I’m not that naive. It’s not going to make all the bad memories go away, but if we can stack a bunch of fresh good memories on it and give them that, we’re seeing that it’s having a really positive effect on these men and women.”
In fact, unbeknownst to the veterans, hundreds of community members, family and friends are on hand when the plane touches down at the Asheville Regional Airport. Many of the people lining the hallways brandish signs, flowers or flags aimed at giving the returning vets a hero’s welcome.
The men enter to a chorus of cheers as the sound of a bagpipe ensemble echoes throughout the terminal. Students from T.C. Roberson High School’s Air Force JROTC and A.C. Reynolds High School’s Army JROTC salute the servicemen, who proudly shake the outstretched hands of these young men and women, who have chosen to spend their Saturday evening this way. Tears of joy flow freely as family members embrace.
“I’ve been on two flights,” says chaperone Laura Leatherwood, the president of Blue Ridge Community College. “My grandfather was in the Navy, my father was in the Navy, my uncle was in the Navy, and I just have a special place in my heart for veterans. It’s a way for me to say thank you and give back.”
For some veterans, the resounding welcome home represents a long overdue recognition of their sacrifice and a sign that their efforts haven’t been forgotten. A great deal of planning goes into the honor flights, says Miller, yet this final celebration, which is mostly organized by community members and family, is often the part of the daylong journey that has the greatest impact. And with scores of smiling faces filling the airport, he adds that he plans to continue the local program as long as there’s a need.
“As long as we can keep raising money and keep the interest, we’ll keep flying.”
Blue Ridge Honor Flight Sept. 21. All photos by Brooke Randle.