“If you can read this, thank your teacher. If you can read it in English, thank your veterans.”
This is the favorite quote turned personal motto of Edie Lowry, president and CEO of Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee, the local division - and only active Tennessee division - of the Honor Flight Network. The national non-profit organization was created in 2005 by Earl Morse to pay tribute to the country's war veterans with an all-expenses-paid flight and VIP tour of THEIR memorials located in Washington, D.C.
Lowry formed Honor Flight's Northeast Tennessee hub in February 2012 - there are currently 121 hubs in 41 states nationwide - and orchestrated the first of what has now been three flights for veterans in October of the same year. The next two weekend trips were held in April and October of 2013, bringing the total number of area veterans served to 67, Lowry said.
“We're hoping to take many more,” she said.
The next flight is scheduled for April 11-14, 2014.
Lowry explained that, at present, the program is predominately geared toward World War II veterans. Since we're losing World War II vets at a rate of one every 90 seconds, “time is crucial for those guys,” she explained. Any remaining flight spots are given to Korean veterans, then Vietnam veterans and so on.
Wheelchairs and guardians are provided to each veteran, and a doctor and nurses are on hand at all times. No matter what health concerns they may have, veterans are asked to take one more tour - a tour of honor.
The flights depend entirely on volunteers and gracious donations from the community, Lowry said. To facilitate more free flights for more veterans, the local Honor Flight branch provides its wartime heroes with a three-day bus trip in lieu of a much costlier plane flight.
Despite the mode of transportation, however, the veterans' experiences speak for themselves.
From the visit to the D-Day Memorial in Bedford,Va., to the Korean, Vietnam, World War II and Air Force memorials in D.C., to a trip to Arlington National Cemetery, Lowry said, “[volunteers] look through [the veterans'] eyes at what they see.”
Tales of fallen comrades and memories of war flowed freely as four local veterans reflected on their service and what Honor Flight has meant to them.
Lifelong best friends and Kingsport area residents, World War II Army veteran Terry J. Smith and Korean War Marine veteran (and Purple Heart recipient) Arlen Wade Hensley were two of the 20 veterans on the first flight the Northeast Tennessee hub took in 2012 and agreed “it was just amazing.”
Although deeply touched at many moments, Smith and Hensley both said their favorite part of the trip was visiting the World War II Memorial.
“It reminded me of things that happened back in the war,” Smith said. He remembered standing on the deck of a ship as he returned home to Pearl Harbor at war's end. Watching the stillness of the sea and calm moon in the sky, he said he “swelled with pride,” happily realizing “I had survived the war.”
Hensley, who was a radio man stationed in Okinawa during the Korean War and wounded in action, said he enjoyed the World War II Memorial because he got to share the experience with Smith and other brothers-in-arms, many of whom were seeing the site for the first time. It was an honor, “just being with those World War II guys, just to see how they reacted to it.”
Likewise, two of the 25 veterans who went on the third and latest honor flight, Oct. 11-13, had similar responses to the moving experience.
Gray native and World War II Army veteran Clinton Isenburg, who joked he used to “walk to work” as a member of the infantry stationed in Okinawa, said the highlight of the trip for him was placing a photo of his older brother -killed in action in Belgium - on a commemorative wreath at the World War II Memorial.
Isenburg said he'd seen many of the monuments before, but getting to go with military brethren was “wonderful... I just can't say enough about it. Everybody took care of each other.”
Johnson City's Katherine Louise Purcott, a 93-year-old World War II Women's Army Corps (WAC) veteran, was the first woman to go on a Northeast Tennessee Honor Flight and the oldest of the 25 veterans who went on her trip. As a female military veteran who lost two brothers in World War II, “it was an honor for me,” she said.
Purcott was the first female commander of the WAC Legion Post in Johnson City and was stationed in England and France during World War II. She recalled the devastation of war-torn Europe and watching damaged planes fly in on D-Day.
“I wish that every person in this United States could live one day in France during the war,” she said sincerely. “We often take things for granted but, “[war's] something you'll never forget.”
For more information on Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee, to donate, volunteer or sign up any veteran who would like to go, visit www.honorflightnetn.org or call Edie Lowry at 423-330-6189.