BY JERRY STERNBERG
There are defining moments in life that are rare but so meaningful that they’re seriously enhanced by being shared with others. For this reason, I am interrupting my river series to tell you about an amazing odyssey I was honored to be part of recently. I was a guest participant in a very special program this May run by a local nonprofit, Blue Ridge Honor Flight. Formerly known as HonorAir, it was founded by Jeff Miller of Hendersonville, an outstanding leader in the community. The program originally served World War II veterans and has now been extended to Korean War veterans like me and some Vietnam vets as well.
The local group is an arm of the national Honor Flight Network. Rotary Club volunteers hold fundraisers and recruit escorts for these deeply moving trips.
I was one of 91 veterans invited to take part in a free trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam Veterans memorials. The trip also included a special stop to witness the deeply moving changing of the guard at the magnificent Arlington National Cemetery.
Upon arriving at the Asheville Regional Airport early that Saturday morning, I was greeted by my very own “guardian,” Dan Akers, one of the 91 volunteer escorts who not only gave up their Saturday but paid their own way to attend to our every need and ensure that our group’s experience would be safe and comfortable.
As we entered the terminal, we were greeted by scores of well-wishers and a band playing such great military music that I was tempted to ship out for another hitch. That was my first moment of powerful emotion, when I realized that all these strangers in the lobby, including children large and small, were there to thank me and all these great guys for our service and to recognize us as heroes.
You see, World War II touched every man, woman and child in this country, and when those of “the Greatest Generation” — who truly saved America from annihilation — came home, they were rightfully lionized and hailed as heroes by an extremely grateful population.
The Korean War, though, was much more localized, and the American public was far less aware of it, even though we suffered some 37,000 casualties. (In fact, that war never ended: Tens of thousands of American troops are still stationed along the Demilitarized Zone, but they don’t come on our radar except when North Korea rattles its missiles.)
So when those vets came home, it was pretty much a nonevent. I was in the Navy for nearly five years, and when I returned, several people I saw greeted me with “Hello, Jerry, where you been?” It was much worse for the returning Vietnam vets, who were told not to wear their uniforms lest they be cursed and spat upon by protesters.
But on this special day we were all heroes — everyone from enlisted men who’d been drafted to serve in Vietnam to a general in his 90s who’d served in all three wars.
Despite many participants’ advanced age and infirmity, Jeff directed the operation with impressive military precision and amazing compassion. In addition to the guardians, we had a full complement of doctors and emergency medical personnel who were ready to assist in any emergency that might arise.
The American Airlines charter flight to Washington was marked by excitement and anticipation. When we deplaned at Washington National, we were greeted by scores of local well-wishers and loaded onto buses. The tour involved several miles of walking, and they had wheelchairs on board for every member of the group. I was proud that I was lucky enough to be able to walk the whole way.
The squad leader in charge of my bus, Judge Marvin Pope, proved to be a very efficient “cat herder.” He also saw to it that the wheelchairs were offloaded at every stop, and he held muster every time we reboarded, to make sure no one was left behind.
We were true celebrities: A full police escort accompanied our convoy of four buses through the streets of Washington.
Grown men don’t cry, but it was hard to keep a dry eye as we walked through these profoundly evocative memorials, knowing the gut-wrenching agony of the families of all these thousands of men and women who, had they survived, might have been on the bus with us this very day.
You see, when you join the military, you are entered in the disaster pool, regardless of whether or not you’re in combat. By its very nature, military service is a dangerous occupation, even if you’re far from any war zone. This was certainly brought home to those who were stationed in the Schofield Barracks or on the USS Nevada in placid Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — not to mention those desk jockeys who had cushy jobs in the Pentagon on 9/11.
I lost two young sailors way up in Sondrestrom Fjord, Greenland, where our ship was supporting a Strategic Air Command installation. They were knocked over the side in a terrible crane accident while offloading in a high wind and died in the freezing water before we could rescue them. Though they weren’t killed in combat, they still paid the ultimate price while helping make it possible for our Air Force to protect us from the Soviets for decades.
Those two sailors were my wingmen on this flight — in my heart and in my memory — on this both exhilarating and solemn day.
During our return trip we were treated to more surprises, which I won’t divulge so as not to spoil anything for future honorees.
The biggest surprise of all, however, came when we deplaned back in Asheville. There must have been 500 family members and caring citizens: Boy Scouts, military folks in uniform and many children who may never even have heard of the terrible wars in which we served. As they grabbed my hand and thanked me for my service, I could not hold back the tears.
I want to thank Blue Ridge Honor Flight and all the donors, volunteers and those who took the time and made the effort to greet us for making this a meaningful experience for me and my fellow vets. In a most powerful way, this trip brought home to me what it means to make the selfless sacrifice to serve your country, and to all of our veterans I want to say again: THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com. If you’re a veteran or have a friend or loved one who might like to be part of the next trip, in September, visit blueridgehonorflight.com for more information.