By Jeanie Powell
WAFF 48 News Reporter
April 19, 2008 is a day that many here in the Heart of the Valley will never forget, myself included.
Saturday was the Third Tennessee Valley Honor Flight.
I was honored to be in the presence of 122 World War II. veterans who made the trip of a lifetime to the capital.
I met friends I definitely will never forget.
What I experienced was history in the making and a chance for many of us to say thank you to those who made history... our nation's greatest generation.
It wasn't quite daylight, as 2008's first group of Valley veterans prepared to leave Huntsville.
All smiles, friendships were immediately made.
Army veteran Chick Wann says, "Like my grandson says, 'You've got to see it with your own eyes.'"
Tennessee Valley Honor Flight President Joe Fitzgerald announced, "It is our wish that today be one of the best days of your lives."
That would prove to be true.
Well wishes were sent and the veterans would soon be off to Washington, accompanied by honorable guests... F-16's, carrying three flags of veterans who were scheduled to be on the flight, but passed away before the trip.
Across a blue sky, the veterans would have a big surprise awaiting them at Reagan National Airport.
Our 122 were greeted by dozens of volunteers, chanting until the last person got off the plane.
Navy veteran Roger Williams proclaimed, "It's awesome!"
I asked Army veteran Bethel Hale and Air Force veteran Adrian Chandler how they felt about the water salute our 757 got from the area fire department.
They said it was something they didn't expect; they were overwhelmed.
The group was personally escorted to the World War II. memorial by the United States Park Police.
We also got to hear beautiful music provided by Joe, who played the bagpipes throughout the trip.
There waiting, were members of our armed forces.
Navy and Army veteran Roy Henderson says, "Met a lot of great people and all of us are so pleased for what they have done for us."
Navy veteran Jack Harbarger says, "It's wonderful. I've never had any comfortable feeling like today."
Army veteran Mathews Taylor got an extra warm welcome.
His daughter and granddaughter met him in D.C.
He was thankful for all the support from around the country.
Taylor says, "It makes you choke up. I enjoy it."
The veterans also got visits at the WWII. Memorial from Senators Bob Dole and Jeff Sessions.
Family members drove and flew miles to be with their loved ones.
Seeing the WWII. Memorial for the first time a time was a moment of reflection.
Air Force veteran Joseph Nascone says the service gave him a college education.
Nascone says, "Actually the service was at times, except of the ones that were killed, it was kind of a blessing for a lot of us. We became men."
Nascone had a lot of family members drive from Pittsburgh to see him on his special day.
A ceremony was held for those who died before getting to see the memorial and for all those too ill to travel.
Three men's names were read.
Those men were scheduled to make the flight.
Col. Hugh Baynes.
Major Hank Tyra.
Staff Sgt. John Hovanes.
Members of the Alabama Air National Guard, 100th fighter squadron, presented the flags.
It was a touching and honorable ceremony.
At the end, Joe played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes.
F-16 pilot Lt. Col. Scott Patton felt gracious for the experience to honor these veterans: "It's important for them to see this. It's been an awesome experience."
And an experience for best friends.
I sat on the plane with two outstanding men, still very much young at heart, who have been friends for literally 81, almost 82, years.
I'm talking about Navy veterans Paul Blackwell and Tillman Crane.
Blackwell says, "We have done everything together since 81 years ago."
Crane chimed in, "We even went into the Navy the same day."
Army veteran Emmett Wilson talks about the friends he's made, "It's just like I've been with them all my life and I didn't know any of them and it's just like you know here they are again and it's just been wonderful. It's as much as I've expected and more."
Army veteran Samuel Martin, who at one time worked at Walter Reed, says this about the experience, "I can't say the words. I appreciate everything they do, make me feel like a man, feel like I was a soldier. At one time I thought I wouldn't have been a soldier the way they treated me."
We traveled to the Women's Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery to The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and witnessed the changing of the guard.
Veterans were then honored at the Marine Corps War Memorial.
There, we chatted with Marine veteran Vestal Watches, "When we got off the plane, people were greeting us and shaking our hands and thanking us and it was just wonderful ."
Navy veteran Lester Alexander shared his amazing story with me, "I sat on the deck and watched them raise the flag. I hollered at some of the flags, I said, "Look at that! It was an awesome sight."
And for me, the Korean War Memorial was a personal one.
My grandfather, Army Veteran Charles Wainright who fought in WWII. and the Korean War, was on the flight.
About the Korean Memorial, he says, "Just the way it was. It really is and they look so real just like it was in combat... rainy and nasty. It is true. It really is the way it was."
It was really special, beyond words, to share this experience with my grandfather, Papa.
He means the world to me and has been one of the biggest cheerleaders in my life.
I was so happy to be there with him on his special day and am so thankful his wonderful guardian Linda was so kind to him.
He appreciated it and I knew he was in great hands.
I was constantly beaming throughout the trip.
I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart, to all of the veterans I met on the Third Honor Flight for making this day one of the best of my life.
I will never forget you.
To make the journey complete, with flags flying high, and perhaps a little later, but still so important, it was welcome home and thanks for everything you have done.
The crowd and feeling of pride in the Huntsville International Airport awaiting these heroes are truly indescribable.
And after a day I can say I will absolutely never forget, I have never felt more proud to be an American.
Three men were unable to make the trip to D.C. Saturday because of medical reasons.
But the wonderful people at Honor Flight are determined to still make that possible at a later date.
In order to get the rest of our veterans up to Washington before the year is over, donations are encouraged.
Honor Flight relies fully on these donations and is a complete volunteer effort.
WAFF 48 would like to thank all of the veterans, volunteers, medical staff, family members, members of our armed forces, Joe Fitzgerald and the rest of the Honor Flight members, and the cheerleaders back at home for making this a very special day.
God bless you all.
*The next Tennessee Valley Honor Flight is scheduled to take off May 31, 2008.
For more information on how you can get involved, you can visit http://www.honorflight.net/.
We encourage the community to greet these men and women at the airport when they arrive.
We promise, you won't regret it!