And right behind him,pushing his wheelchair was Graceyn Moore,a junior at Belton-Honea Path High School,in Honea Path,S.C.,who raised more than $10,000 for the trip so veterans like Leslie could be honored for their service.
“She’s been as nice to me as my children,” Leslie,89 said. “She’s a special lady.”
He recalled how she had phoned him and asked him to come to her Sweet 16 birthday party,which was the main fundraiser for the event,have dinner with her family beforehand and accompany her through the sabers held by her Junior ROTC drill team. Graceyn is a Junior ROTC member.
Leslie was one of about 70 veterans from the Anderson,S.C.,area who braved rain and tornado warnings to see the National World War II Memorial – their monument,they were reminded – through Honor Flight Network,which works to bring veterans to Washington.
Jeffery Miller,one of the co-founders,said he had been moved to start the group after discovering his father,a veteran,had donated toward the memorial but was never able to see it. Since 2006,300 flights from around the country have brought veterans to the capital.
Many of the veterans were quick to describe the event as exciting,but underneath the rush were more sober sentiments.
“It’s unreal,really. It’s almost indescribable,”said Jay Byers,84,of Lawrence,S.C.,who served in the U.S. Air Force just after World War II. Asked what made the memorial so amazing,he looked away.
“It’s a little difficult,” he said.
Bob Frichette,88,of Easley. S.C.,and a former medic in the Coast Guard,was surprised to see how large the monument is.
But when he saw the South Carolina pillar,he said his mind went to the 14 friends who died in the war.
And there was anger as well.
“It makes me wonder why the hell Congress waited so long to build one,” he said.
Although the weather cut the trip short – the group viewed many monuments and memorials from their bus,and they missed the highly anticipated changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery – Miller said the main goal had been accomplished.
“They got to see the memorial,” he said. “That’s what we brought them up for.”
The veterans also saw other demonstrations of appreciation for what they had done. Bill R. Beckett,50,of Easley,and an Air Force Veteran,helped the Defenders Motorcycle Club raise $6,000 and paid $300 for the chance to escort a veteran. Lauren Valainis,23,a member of Republican South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan’s staff spent several days making 100 pins for the veterans and handed them out in the rain at the monument.
A group of volunteers from Burdette,Smith & Bish,an accounting firm in Fairfax,Va.,took the day to help escort some of the veteran.
As the veterans waited for their return flight to the Greenville-Spartanburg airport,each veteran received several letters written by South Carolina school children thanking them for their service.
The best part of the day,Beckett said,is the homecoming. Family members were asked to be present when the plane landed to give the veterans greetings befitting returning soldiers.
“They give them hero’s welcome when they come back,” Beckett said. “If you have a human bone in your body,you’ll be crying,”
Reach reporter Emily Wilkins at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.