Dan Cox joined the Honor Flight Columbus trip to Washington, D.C. with his older brother and a good measure of trepidation.
Cox, of Pickerington, served in the 11th Cavalry and received a Bronze Star. He waited 40 years to attend his Army reunion, afraid people would want to talk about the Vietnam War. He didn't want to talk about the Vietnam War.
He had reservations about whether he'd be able to take Thursday's flight to the capital to tour the nation’s memorials on Honor Flight Columbus’ 104th trip.
The Cox brothers each got drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam – first Max, and when he got home, Dan went over. While they made it back alive, their high school friend, Chester A. Wright, was killed in action in August 1968. He was 20.
“Most of them were just kids,” said Max Cox, of Coshocton, who served as an Army sergeant and was awarded three medals. He planned to give the pencil etching he got of Wright’s name on the Vietnam Memorial wall to Wright’s family.
Honor Flight, a nonprofit established in 2005 to take military veterans to see memorials in Washington, D.C., has 125 hubs across the nation, including in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Findlay and Dayton. Over the years, the organization has escorted more than 240,000 vets to D.C.
The Thursday flight carried 125 veterans, with some from Akron, Bucyrus, Columbus, Lancaster, Cambridge, Marion and Zanesville.
The coronavirus pandemic put a halt on flights starting in the spring 2020. Honor Flight Columbus is the only Ohio-based chapter that is making the trips again. The other Ohio chapters still have trips on hold due to COVID-19 concerns.
Honor Flight Columbus Executive Director Pete MacKenzie said with other chapters canceling flights, it's easier to arrange the charter flights to D.C. With a robust volunteer roster and available planes, MacKenzie said he aims to fly more veterans and clear his waitlist.
'We better go while we can, Dad'
It's now or never for some. Two of the veterans on the trip Thursday have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses and World War II Navy veteran William Jackson is 96 years old.
Jackson, of Reynoldsburg, got the rock star treatment as his son, Steve, rolled him in a wheelchair down the ramp to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. Strangers waved, shook his hand and thanked him for his service. He sat front and center for the group photo and was presented with an American flag.
“I told him ‘we better go while we can, Dad,’” said Steve Jackson. “He’s not traveling much. He doesn’t get out as much anymore.”
As a teenager aboard the USS Colorado during World War II in the Pacific, Jackson escaped death when 240 service members were killed by enemy fire in Tinian and again when 91 were killed in a kamikaze strike in the Leyte Gulf.
He made it to his 20th birthday and attended the formal surrender of Japan aboard the USS Colorado in Tokyo Bay in September 1945.
Jackson is among a dwindling number of World War II veterans who are alive and able to travel with Honor Flight chapters. He was the only World War II veteran on the Thursday trip and just nine are left on the Honor Flight Columbus' trip waitlist.
Nowadays, the passenger manifest is loaded with veterans of the Korean War and Vietnam War.
It was their very first trip to see the monuments for some.
“I figured it was time to come see my brothers, who I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to,” said U.S. Marine Corps veteran Gene Agriesti of Pickerington, who enlisted and served in Vietnam.
He teared up as he found the names of his friends Malcolm Mole and Paul Bellamy, who were killed in January 1968 during the Siege of Khe Sanh. He plans to frame their etched names along side the grainy black-and-white snapshots he has cherished for more than five decades.
Agriesti let out a heavy sigh. “It’s upsetting but I guess it gives closure.”
Logistics always challenging for Honor Flights
The day began before 4:30 a.m. as 63 volunteer “guardians” checked in veterans, distributed red polo shirts and double-checked IDs at John Glenn International Airport. Masks and COVID-19 vaccinations were mandatory.
It is no small logistical feat to fly 125 veterans – most of them over 70 years old – to Washington, D.C., and guide them through an aggressive schedule. The itinerary included Arlington National Cemetery, memorials to the Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy and Women in Military Service for America, as well as three war memorials.
At each bus stop, when the team leader hollered “wheelchair wranglers first,” volunteers hustled off the bus, flung open the cargo doors and pulled out the chairs for veterans. The guardians attended to their veterans’ every need: snacks, photos, water, potty stops. And they were ready for the unpredictable with first aid kits, portable oxygen and automated external defibrillators on each bus.
Dr. Betty Mitchell, who has been volunteering since 2014, hustled to a local pharmacy by Uber to get prescription medication needed for a veteran’s breathing treatment.
Veterans fly free, courtesy of Honor Flight sponsors and fundraising. Volunteers pay their own way. Many of them go again and again.
Thursday marked Mary Hutchinson’s third trip.
"I just find it very fulfilling. You share moments throughout the day that bond you. Sometimes, it’s stuff they can’t even tell their families,” she said.
The return flight didn’t touch down until after 9:30 p.m. As the veteran sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines walked off the flight they were greeted with bagpipes, signs, balloons, handshakes, cheers and well wishes.
“This is a beautiful thing they’re doing," Dan Cox said. "You can’t thank the Honor Flight people enough."
Laura Bischoff is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.