Honor Flight Brings Hope, Healing to Veterans

By Cory Vaillancourt
For nearly two decades, a unique nonprofit with roots in Western North Carolina has helped to recognize veterans for their wartime service.

But as World War II and Korean conflict veterans become increasingly rare, Vietnam-era veterans are finding that the Blue Ridge Honor Flight has helped them, and the country, reckon with a complex wartime legacy — one soldier at a time.

“It closed the door to a lot of good and bad memories,” said Ernie Edwards, a Haywood County resident who accompanied 182 others, including 83 Vietnam veterans, on recent Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.

Edwards was a childhood pal of Capt. Fred Hall, a Waynesville native who went missing in Vietnam in 1969. Hall was listed as missing in action for more than half a century, until his remains were identified earlier this year. He was laid to rest in Waynesville’s Green Hill Cemetery on Oct. 11, with full military honors.

After serving two tours in the Navy during the Vietnam conflict, during which more than 58,000 Americans were killed, Edwards returned home to a country he barely recognized.

“We received oranges and tomatoes and bananas — thrown at us. Yelling. Name calling,” Edwards recalls. “We expected some sense of welcome, but everybody turned their backs on us, and it was a shocker. Our homecoming was bittersweet. We were home, but we weren’t welcomed home.”

Edwards said he’d waited nearly 30 years to hear someone say, “welcome home,” or “thank you for your service.”

Alongside fellow Haywood vets Lawrence Braxton, J.W. Finney, Butch High, Harris Rathbone, Richard Reeves, Alfred Skipper, Sam Smiley and Jimmy Smith, Edwards flew to Washington on Oct. 14. The flight, BRHF’s 45th, was dedicated to the memory of Hall. Hall’s widow, Julia Hall Coffey, was also aboard.

Founded in 2005 by Ohio physician assistant Earl Morse, son of a WWII veteran, HonorAir took 12 vets in six small planes to Washington to visit the newly opened WWII memorial after Morse, who worked at the VA, learned that many vets he knew had never seen it.

Later that year, Hendersonville businessman Jeff Miller, also the son of a WWII veteran, built on Morse’s concept and organized commercial flights out of Asheville in 2006, bringing more than 300 veterans to Washington, free of charge.

Morse and Miller soon merged their groups, creating the Honor Flight Network, which is now headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. Since then, it’s estimated that more than 244,000 veterans have traveled from across the country to Washington with one of nearly 130 separate Honor Flight chapters.

Although the trips sound relatively straightforward, the logistics of keeping more than 180 people — many elderly, with health concerns or mobility issues — fed, watered and all moving together in the right direction are intimidating.

JoAnn Naeger, who lost a cousin in Vietnam, has been with BRHF since 2008 and serves as flight coordinator. Along with a team of volunteers, she’s in charge of keeping BRHF’s two trips a year on track. Once the trip is over, she goes right back to work planning the next one.

“As I’ve gotten more involved and heard the veterans’ stories, it’s such a small price to give back for what they did, so I do whatever it takes to get them on the flight,” Naeger said. “We would fly every day if we could.”

The Oct. 14 flight left Asheville around 8:45 a.m., after veterans and their escorts, called guardians, passed through security.

Thanks to legislation called the Honor Flight Act, passed by Congress in 2014, Honor Flight participants take advantage of an expedited security screening. No lines, no substantial searches, no x-rays.

Each flight also has at least one physician, several EMTs and a trauma counselor on board.

Breakfast was served at the gate, and after the short flight to Baltimore, everyone boarded one of four chartered busses, led by an escort from a Maryland State Trooper.

Upon arrival at the Lincoln Memorial, veterans participated in a short ceremony and were then free to visit several other nearby memorials on the National Mall.

Despite pouring rain and temperatures hovering in the low 60s, many vets made their way to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known to many as The Wall. It was there that Coffey, Hall’s widow, saw his name on the monument for the very first time. Coffey said she was pleased to see it, but not everyone shares the same sentiment when confronted with memories of a painful past — especially the veterans who were there.

Behavioral health experts are left to pick up the pieces.

“We deal with a lot of depression,” said Cheryl Cox, a registered nurse who works for AccentCare Regional Behavioral Health in Georgia. “We deal with a lot of severe anxiety around a lot of situations like things that are going on currently [in Israel], so we try to step in and just be some type of support.”

AccentCare partners with the VA to help veterans with PTSD by utilizing in-home cognitive behavioral therapy. Cox said that a lot of Vietnam-era vets still feel there’s a stigma around mental health treatment, so many have never sought help. However, experiences like an Honor Flight can actually be quite therapeutic.

Cox related the story of one of her behavioral health nurses whose father flew to Washington with an Honor Flight group out of Chicago. Unbeknownst to the veteran, his family was there waiting for him, and he also ended up running into two people with whom he’d served.

“He was overwhelmed,” Cox said. “He was overcome with joy, because this was an experience that he thought he would never have and because he did, he just felt so much better about it. So I do know that it does help them. This is something that I think definitely should be utilized more often, because it does bring closure, it does allow them to see that we are grateful for their service and what they did for us at the time.”

After spending time on the National Mall, the busses proceeded to several other D.C.-area monuments, including Arlington National Cemetery, where more than 400,000 servicemembers and some of their relatives are buried. The trip concluded with a return flight to Asheville, but that wasn’t quite the end of the journey.

The Allegiant jet didn’t return to the terminal at Asheville. Instead, around 9:15 p.m., it pulled up outside a hangar where hundreds of people, waving flags and holding signs, waited for the veterans to disembark. Once they did, they were led into the hangar where a raucous celebration including a full Scottish pipe band, was already underway. It’s the “welcome home” many of them didn’t get.

“When they get home,” Naeger said, “and they are greeted like they were never greeted before — the smiles, the joy of seeing their family members — it’s the healing that you can see, when they finally come home.”

Honor flight brings hope, healing to veterans (smokymountainnews.com)