The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Life!

May 22, 2013

A Hero’s Welcome

‘We can’t all be heroes. Some of us get to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.’ — Will Rogers

Technically, it wasn’t a flight, it was a ride. But by the time a busload of World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans clambered down to see their respective memorials in Washington D.C., emotions soared.

They didn’t expect a crowd sporting a large vinyl sign: Free Hugs For Veterans. They didn’t expect enthusiastic rounds of applause breaking the metropolitan monotony like impromptu fireworks displays. Ovations greeted the men, many sporting caps marking the wars they had fought, perched proudly on crowns of white, above legs filing in expectedly slower than when they surrendered their youth to the U.S. military.

“I’m an old man now,” remarked Korean War veteran Alfred “Jack” Dorsey, as if he and aging had made their peace long ago.

They didn’t expect visitors of every nationality and creed to hold stock still as a full color guard ceremony honored veteran sacrifice inside the WWII memorial, servicemen in full regalia standing as tall as the honorees once stood, but not yet as proud.

A 5-year-old boy approached with hand extended, one of many young children who would do the same this day.

“Excuse me, sir. But I wanted to say thank you for your service.'”

They didn’t expect the red carpet welcome they received as guests of the third trip of the West Virginia chapter Honor Flight Program, but they certainly deserved it.

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The Always Free Honor Flight to Washington was arranged by the Denver Foundation, an organization co-founded by the late actor Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island fame and his wife Dreama, marked the first and possibly last time some would visit the capital of the nation they risked their lives to represent, the first touchstone opportunity for due honor for service.

One Vietnam veteran who chooses to remain anonymous funded the transportation, the day’s food and the experience. Denver networks throughout the year to collect donations and to arrange a welcome fit for heroes, communicating from her home in Mercer County and her post at radio station, Little Buddy Radio.

When morning show co-host Charlie Thomas, who helped establish the Missouri chapter of Honor Flight, described the mission, it arrested her attention.

“We checked the facts and we have more veterans per capita than any other state, but we didn’t have an Honor Flight.”

Thomas, who joins Denver in serving the veterans on their trips to D.C. is intimately familiar with the feeling of loss over a veteran who never gets to see his memorial. “My father was one who didn’t,” he explained.

Honor Flights, as they’ve come to be known throughout the country, are valorous expressions of charity, explained Dan Hayes, producer and director for Honor Flight, the documentary detailing the journey of four WW II veterans from Wisconsin to Washington to visit their memorials, 60 years after their struggles.

“I spent two years doing this after I came down to D.C. to video and to greet the Wisconsin chapter of the Honor Flight program. When a veteran said “I can die a happy man now that I’ve made this trip, I realized how important this was.”

According to Hayes’ movie website (www.honorflightthemovie.com), 1,000 WWII veterans die every day, and getting them on an Honor Flight in time is a constant battle.

Hayes organized the large group assembled in front of the WWII Memorial, set to appreciate the West Virginia veterans as they de-board. They are part of what he calls his Ground Crew, volunteers and associates who traditionally gather to greet veterans from inside Reagan International Airport when they fly in to see the memorials from across the country. Since the West Virginia group came by bus, the ground crew met them at the National Mall instead.

But Hayes wasn’t responsible for the heartfelt acknowledgments extended throughout D.C.

“Thank you for your service. Thank you for your service,” echoed through the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol, where Sen. Joe Manchin, Reps. Nick Joe Rahall and  Sally Moore Capito greeted the veterans with a morning reception and a tour.

“We’ve shed more blood for the cause of freedom than any other state,” Manchin offered. “When you see people out there today and they ask you where you’re from, you puff out your chest and say proudly, ‘West Virginia, the bravest state in the nation’.”

“I’ve never been treated so kindly,” expressed one Korean War veteran.

Moving slowly through the throngs of tourists, the group persists until it visits each memorial honoring their battles. One veteran, Walter “Frank” Adkins, had fought in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, serving as a paramedic in the Navy, the Air Force and the Army.

According to his wheelchair escort, Sgt. Paul Dorsey, he represents a sliver of a minority.

“I could be wrong, but I researched it one time and there were only a handful like him — maybe 20 to 30 veterans, who hold that distinction.”

Sgt. Dorsey brought with him as escorts four of his Junior ROTC cadets. Each braves the heat of the day fully uniformed, diligently pushing wheelchairs for the mostly 80- to 90-plus-year-old veterans.

“When this is over, (the cadets) will probably say something like, ‘Man, that was cool.’ But it’s something they will remember for the rest of their lives,” Sgt. Dorsey said, adding, “I’ll be coming on every one of these until they’re pushing me around in a wheelchair.”

- - -

One WWII veteran tires out and quietly returns to the bus for rest. He looks thoughtfully from the window at his friends and waits patiently, dutifully until the group returns. A testament to the generations represented, not a single complaint presents for the duration of the 24-hour round trip.

Alfred “Jack” Dorsey holds out his Korean War cap studded with military pins and pins of national pride, “I (heart) USA” and several red, white and blue emblems, a purple bar and other distinguishing badges he says tell the story of his life. He adds one more pin, a West Virginia Vietnam Veteran’s badge given to him from another vet traveling on the bus.

“They wouldn’t take me for WWII. I got drafted and couldn’t pass the physical because of a heart murmur and my blood pressure. But the Korean War took me with flying colors,” he says, chuckling.

Dorsey, who went on to be a successful farmer with at one time 35 horses (half-Arabians and a good number of Morgans) and after the military, enjoyed a long career as the maintenance supervisor for Summersville Lake.

He downplays his sacrifice, saying he “got skinned up a little” in Korea. Traveling companion, friend and fellow veteran Newt McCutcheon, a retired Army Ranger, admits it was quite a deal more than that. Dorsey had a narrow escape in battle with a shot to the neck just six months after arriving in Korea, and it took him a year and a half in the hospital to recover.

Jack, as everyone calls him, and who named himself so at 3 after a popular aviation comic strip, “The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack,” prefers to shift attention to honoring the hardships of long ago friends, recalling when one returned home from the USS Pigeon after the bombing of Hiroshima weighing 80 pounds soaking wet.

“He survived on the food the American Red Cross gave him.”

He remains upbeat and energetic on the trip to see it, his Korean War Memorial, and respectfully silent at the wall etched in the faces of the men who died fighting what he fought. The adjacent statuary blooms in the stainless steel ghosts of a time he once knew, a squad on patrol in full battle gear, trudging through juniper bushes representing the rugged Korean terrain.

Like Jack, many of the veterans went on to achieve in business, to have long marriages and large families, to enjoy what qualified as the American Dream.

They are still getting acquainted with one another’s stories at 10 o’clock at night, three hours away from their parked vehicles at a final rest stop before the last leg home and the end of a memorable journey.

A woman exiting a convenience store notices the group assembled and reads VETERAN in block letters on the backs of their blue Honor Flight T-shirts. She walks around to each, shaking hands before returning to her car. “Thank you for your service. Thank you for your service.”

A trip about honor for each, and perhaps a few painful remembrances. A revelation as well — there are many others, generations old and new, who also haven’t forgotten.

“I’m not from a military family,” admits Denver. “I used to have the response of ‘thanks for safeguarding our freedom,’ the general attitude of respect. But after the first trip we took, I understood so much more. After seeing veterans stand and weep at the memorials honoring them, I wanted to continue to be a part of this. I knew it was a worthwhile mission.”

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com

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