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The Men Who Saved the World

Honoring the Greatest Generation of veterans starts at BWI

“I’m havin’ flashbacks,” says 71-year-old Paul Karpinski at the Korean War Memorial. “Everything they’re wearing is the same. The ponchos, the guns. Even the radios. All of this just makes my heart swell.”

If you can read this, thank a teacher … If you can read this in English, thank a veteran.
    The words printed on the back of Honor Flight T-shirts are words World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans live by. As do the younger generations who call those men and women their heroes.
    For 11 years, Honor Flight has been flying World War II, Vietnam and Korean War veterans into all three Washington airports out of 130 hubs in 44 U.S. states. The Honor Flights usually starts mid-March and end on Veteran’s Day.
    Grouped by shirt colors of grey, red and electric-yellow, Honor Flight veterans tour monuments and memorials. Before they get to those monuments, they’re welcomed by locals who pour their hearts into honoring those who they’ve been raised to call the Greatest Generation.

Upon landing at BWI, Honor Flight veterans were haloed by a water salute and then recognized by a group of sailors. Later the veterans got their hands on a giant flag at Fort McHenry.

•   •   •   •   •

On a late June morning, Korean War veteran Monta ‘Gunner’ Plank follows a line of wheelchairs and walkers off Southwest Flight 2892, which has just arrived from Kansas, into Thurgood Marshall Baltimore Washington International Airport terminal. For the first time in his life, the ornery 79-year-old is speechless.
    “Holy s***!” he mouths, as tears well up in his eyes.
    While taxiing into the gate, the plane had been haloed by a water salute shot from opposing airport fire engines. Plank thought that would be it, but now uniformed Navy officers lined up to shake his hand. Mobs of travelers — 50 or more — are crowded around the hall. They thank him for his service. The children hug him. A nun in white stops to smile at him.
    As Plank turns the corner, Columbia resident Linda Howard greets him with a warm handshake and a pat on the back. He’s swarmed by travelers waving American flags at least two gates down.
    “It blew my mind. I’ll never forget that,” Plank recalls a few moments later at baggage claim. “It was like the whole place exploded around me. I didn’t know what to do. I was awestruck.”
    For the volunteer BWI greeters, a crowd like this is no surprise. But every volunteer, officer and traveler at the gate is a surprise to the veterans.

•   •   •   •   •

Among the greeters is Barbara Flanagan, who since 2008, has met Pearl Harbor survivors, former POWs, Tuskegee Airmen, Buffalo Soldiers and many more.
    “I volunteer in honor of my father,” Flanagan says. He served in the U.S. Navy (USS Yorktown, CV-10) in the Pacific in World War II. He passed in 2012, but through Honor Flights she can, she says, “personally” thank other veterans. “Each has a unique memory to share, and it is such an honor to spend time with these men and women who are such a key part of our history.”
    World War II veterans returned home to gratitude. Not Korean War and Vietnam veterans, who in today’s Honor Flight number four and 34.
    “Fifty years ago, we came home and no one gave a s***,” said Vietnam veteran and Marine Doc Pustka with tears in his eyes. “We’re finally getting the homecoming we deserve.”
    Each Honor Flight includes a day or two of greetings and surprises. Today, Coast Guard officers wait outside Mission BBQ in Glen Burnie to shake hands and share lunch. Veterans explore the hills of Fort McHenry and learn about the Star Spangled Banner. Park Ranger Scott Sheads has them furl and flap a giant flag, and suddenly septuagenarians and octogenarians transform into a gym class of children with a play parachute.

Vietnam veteran Butch Proffitt (Army) points to the name of fallen friend David R. Mackey at the Vietnam War Memorial.

    At the Hilton on West Nursery Road, they’re surprised once again with a dinner banquet and an emotional “mail call,” where they receive letters of thanks written by their loved ones and children around the country. Here tears rain.
    U.S. history lives through these aging men and women, who can give first-hand accounts of imprisonment by the enemy, fighting in the first wave at Omaha Beach, surviving at Pearl Harbor and watching friends die as young men. Some have kept these stories to themselves for almost a lifetime. Others die with them.
    The Honor Flight fights a losing battle against time. Approximately approximately 430 veterans die every day, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Some are hospice patients, and seeing the city is one of the last things they do.
    Despite looming death, the program is aggressively expanding. There were 20,886 veterans and 19,093 guardians flown in 2015. Since the program’s start in 2005, 159,703 veterans and 107,527 guardians have come. There is even a waitlist with 21,032 veterans eager to visit the nation’s memorials, according to honorflight.org ...
    As they enter the World War II Memorial, Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp greets the veterans from his state. Last summer, Senator Bob Dole spent almost every weekend chatting with veterans here. USO volunteers dressed as donut dollies plant rosy lipstick kisses on the veterans’ cheeks.
    For tourists snapping pictures and children buzzing around on field trips, these monuments are just hunks of stone and metal. But for these veterans, they’re haunting.
    “I’m havin’ flashbacks,” 71-year-old Paul Karpinski says, walking through the Korean War Memorial. “Everything they’re wearing is the same. The ponchos, the guns. Even the radios. All of this just makes my heart swell.”

Veterans and guardians watch a wreath-changing ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

    If you ask Karpinski, Good, Doc, Gunner or any of the Kansas veterans, they’ll tell you they aren’t heroes. Those are the soldiers who died young. The names of friends they point to and cry for on the stone walls of these memorials.
    On the bus ride back to the Hilton, as everyone discusses their favorite parts of the trip, 68-year-old Army veteran David Good stands up. “This trip is one of the greatest things I’ve ever had happen to me!” he announces. Many nod, their blue ballcaps bobbing in agreement. A few minutes later a guardian grabs the bus microphone, and everyone breaks out into “Home on the Range.”
    These veterans may not consider themselves heroes, but for a day or two they get to be kings.