'Thank you for your service': Veterans honored with free trips to D.C.
It’s a busy Friday morning at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, but for a moment, everything has stopped.
No suitcase wheels click on the glossy floor. No magazines rustle. No voices echo over the intercom.
Instead, all eyes have turned to the bagpiper and the TSA Honor Guard who are making their way down concourse.
When the travelers who have gathered three-deep in front of ice cream stands and trinket shops glimpse the 40 veterans in American-flag-adorned wheelchairs in the procession behind them, a hearty and continuous applause erupts.
Some salute. Some offer a handshake. And others choke back tears as they say five words that can mean so much: “Thank you for your service.”
Shanti Jovchevskni thanks World War II veteran Herbert Witzel for his service as he waits to board his flight to Washington, D.C., for the 52nd Honor Flight Austin. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Some of the veterans wipe tears from their eyes, too. For some of them, it’s recognition that’s been decades in the making.
“For the most part our veterans coming back from World War II, Korea and Vietnam didn’t get any kind of reception. They just returned to real life, whatever it was. You drop the rifle today and go back to the plow tomorrow,” said Dwain James, chairman of Honor Flight Austin and a Vietnam veteran. “Our purpose here is to let them all know that they were appreciated and that they did have value as a service member.”
Honor Flight Austin is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that pays for veterans of World War II and the Vietnam and Korean Wars to take one-night trips to Washington, D.C., to visit places such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the World War II Memorial that honor their service. On Sept. 7, Austin’s 52nd Honor Flight and first of the fall season left from the red-white-and-blue decorated Gate 12 at the airport.
Bill Thoms, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, cries during a procession though Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as other people in the airport applaud before veterans board an Honor Flight Austin trip to Washington, D.C. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Among the veterans on the flight were Herbert Witzel, 93, George Walker, 91, and David Moore, 92, all neighbors at Buckner Villas senior living community in North Austin. As they made their way through the airport, each man was assisted by his own volunteer.
“They certainly are treating us like VIPs,” said Moore, a 31-year Army serviceman who served in the 750th tank battalion during World War II and worked in military intelligence during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. “It’s incredible. There’s all kinds of things I’ve never dreamed of. I’ve never had this kind of service before.”
Chuck Trahan, who coordinates logistics for Honor Flight Austin, said it’s vital that the Honor Flights create special memories for the veterans.
“It’s important for all of them to be recognized for what they’ve given our country,” said Trahan, who is also a veteran. “In particular for the Vietnam veterans this is so special because they got treated so poorly when they came back the first time. This is like the thank you they should have gotten back in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Before boarding their Southwest Airlines flight — Southwest is a longtime sponsor of Honor Flight — the veterans paused to sing the national anthem, some gently rising from their wheelchairs as they placed their hands over their hearts.
Army Spc. Louis Merino salutes as veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars walk through Austin-Bergstrom International Airport before boarding their flight to Washington, D.C., for the 52nd Honor Flight Austin. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Surrounding them, spectators ranging from business travelers to toddlers also placed their hands over their hearts and joined in song.
As the last words of the anthem — “land of the free and home of the brave” — faded out, Jennifer Hays wiped tears from her eyes.
“I wasn’t prepared for this,” Hays said. “I’m a mess.”
Hays, who was returning to her home in Washington, D.C., after a visit to Austin, said she had only ever heard about Honor Flight on the news. Now, she found herself on one.
“I’m still ready to cry,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s really nice to be part of it. I’m honored.”
HONOR FLIGHT AUSTIN