World War II veteran Terry Smith, left, talks with Koran War veteran Arlen Hensley Wednesday at the Kingsport Veterans Memorial. Photo by David Grace.
A large fountain rests in the center, flanked on two sides by massive stone pillars. Each pillar is adorned with a wreath and the name of a state carved near the base of the pillar.
Nestled between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument sits the memorial to World War II veterans. When Terry J. Smith, a veteran of WWII, LST 606 South Pacific, saw the monument for the first time in October of last year, he was awestruck. But what really got him were the people around the monument.
“There was a monument there that you looked at and there were five different ones across there; Leyte, Peleliu, Okinawa, all of them and there were two little boys standing there,” Smith said as his lip quivered and he paused to collect himself. “I said, ‘I was there, there, there and there,’ just like that and their eyes got that big. They must have been 11 or 12 years old and they reached their hands out to shake mine. It felt great.”
Smith was able to make the trip to Washington, D.C., thanks to an organization called Honor Flight of Northeast Tennessee.
Honor Flight is a nonprofit organization dedicated to taking WWII, terminally ill, disabled, Korean and Vietnam veterans to Washington, D.C., to see their monuments. It has 117 chapters nationwide, and the Northeast Tennessee chapter was started in February 2012.
Already the group has taken 42 area veterans to Washington, D.C., and hopes to take many more.
“Twice a year we’re doing it, but if the money comes in, we’ll do it as many times as we can,” said President of Honor Flight, Edie Lowry. “We’re trying to get our World War II veterans up there as quickly as possible because time is not on their side anymore. So if we can get the money raised, we’ll do it more than twice a year.”
Smith illustrated just how precious time is for World War II veterans. He said the crew from LST 606 would have a reunion. They held 26 in all, and at the last reunion there were only three veterans left, including himself.
“When we got on that ship we were all teenagers, all but the officers,” he said. “Everyone was teenagers, just a bunch of kids.”
Veterans take a three-day bus trip up to the nation’s capital. Lowry estimates it takes between $16,000 and $18,000 to pay for the trip. That money pays for accommodations, food and the bus for the veterans.
All of the money is raised through fundraisers and donations. Honor Flight holds multiple fundraisers through the year including spaghetti dinners, Bob Evans restaurant dinners, musical benefits and other events. The organization is holding a presentation on May 30 at the Piney Flats First Baptist Church, located at 100 Cherry St., Piney Flats, Tenn.
For the veterans that took the trip, they have nothing but good things to say about Honor Flight.
“It was a fabulous trip,” said Korean war veteran, Fox company 2nd battalion 5th regiment 1st Marine division, Arlen Hensley. “They treat you like royalty. They do an exceptional job.”
A group known as Guardians also takes the trip with the veterans to see the memorial. Guardians are volunteers who pay a $375 donation to go, but want to be a friend to the veterans who take the trip.
“They are there to be their shoulder, be their hand, to lean on if they want to talk,” Lowry said. “Each guardian has a wheelchair, whether the veteran needs it or not.”
The reason for the wheelchair is if a veteran goes up to a monument, like the Vietnam wall, and sees a friend’s name or becomes emotional, they can have a place to sit down.
It’s not just about seeing the monument when the veterans take the trip, it’s also about creating memories.
Smith told a story about the second night on his trip. As he was leaving the bathroom, a woman asked him to sit down and talk with her. She began asking questions about his time in the service. In the background a man named Elvis was singing and would put his arm around the women while walking around.
“It just so happened he come over and hugged that one I was sitting with,” he said. “And I said, ‘Move on Elvis, this one belongs to me.’”
Smith had been hesitant to go at first. He and Hensley had talked about going, but when Hensley told him about it, he wasn’t sure if he really wanted to go. After words of encouragement from Hensley, he decided to give it a shot. Smith said he’s glad he went, and encourages every veteran to take the trip and promises they won’t forget it.
For Lowry, Honor Flight holds a special meaning.
“It means knowing that I am able to give back as much, I can’t give back more than they have given us, but I can give back as much from my heart,” she said. “These men and women deserve to see their memorials and sometimes it’s their last journey of life. And to know I’m part of that last journey, it’s from here,” she said as she patted her heart and tears welled up in her eyes.