For a moment, an elderly World War II veteran from Columbus found himself alone inside a Reagan National Airport terminal near Washington, D.C.
But as Ken Ritz entered a corridor, the 89-year-old was surprised to encounter lines of welcoming strangers — all warmly smiling and applauding him.
“That touched me the most,” said Ritz, one of four Bartholomew County veterans who were part of last month’s Indy Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. The other three were Bob Condon of Columbus, and Ike Wasson and Bob Gilliland of Hope.
When the Mooresville-based Indy Honor Flight program was founded in 2009, the nonprofit’s focus was almost exclusively on honoring elderly World War II veterans.
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But due to the passage of time, many of the 178 Hoosiers who made the Sept. 3 trip were Korean War veterans, Ritz said.
As the number of surviving WWII and Korean War veterans continues to dwindle, a few of the oldest Vietnam War veterans are now being invited on the all-expenses paid trip, said Warren Kirk, who served as Condon’s guardian.
Kirk, the 71-year-old pastor of Hope United Methodist Church, said he believes members of his generation stationed in southeast Asia from the late 1950s to the early 1970s may be in most need of a heartfelt thanks.
“While they went through a lot, there’s no question Vietnam War soldiers were the least appreciated after coming home from conflict,” Kirk said.
The minister’s desire to look after Condon was largely motivated by memories of the elderly father he cared for until his 1986 death, he said.
“Everyone in war puts their life on the line,” Kirk said. “This was a chance for these dedicated individuals to reflect — and an opportunity for me to give back to them. I really wanted to be a part of this.”
Since Ritz was stationed stateside and in the Caribbean from 1944 to 1948, his memories are mostly positive, he said.
“I never really had a bad experience when I was in the service,” Ritz said. “But a lot of them who made the flight did.”
While Condon was decorated for his service, he chose not to talk about his experiences while serving in the Pacific during WWII — at least not to his guardian, Kirk said.
That’s not unusual, based on interviews with earlier participants. However, other veterans have said they experience a form of cathartic relief or peace of mind when they talk with their military peers during the Honor Flight experience.
As Wasson visited the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the memorials for those who died in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, he “felt a sense of pride as others respectfully interacted with him and the other vets,” said his friend, David Webster, who helped with local efforts regarding the trip.
Although Ritz cited the Lincoln Memorial as his favorite, Kirk said many veterans seemed extremely honored to be greeted by 1996 Republican presidential nominee and former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole outside the World War II memorial.
“(Dole) wanted to know each man’s name, branch of service and have a conversation,” Kirk said. “There were lots of vets with tears in their eyes.”
“There was a 20- to 25-foot long line to see (Dole),” Ritz said. “He’s a good man.”
But perhaps the most emotionally touching experience took place during the flight home from Washington to Indianapolis.
“We were about halfway back when somebody announced ‘Mail Call’,” Ritz said. “I thought this can’t be true. Ain’t no mailman delivering mail at 35,000 feet.”
Each veteran received dozens of letters from students, family, friends, church members and politicians.
“Some letters caused tears and others a smile,” Webster said. “(Wasson) heard words like ‘worth reading,’ ‘creative,’ ‘always a part of my memory’ and ‘precious’ to describe them.”
For Ritz, who estimates he received more than 100 letters, the most touching was penned by an 8-year-old who took time to write Hoosier veterans — even though the boy lives in Mississippi.
“They passed that around to everybody,” Ritz said. “There were a lot of letters that tugged at my heart, but I’d like to write him.”
Information about the Mooresville-based Indy Honor Flight program is available by calling 317-559-1600, or by going online at indyhonorflight.org.
Besides the veterans who go, their guardians during Indy Honor Flights also collect lasting memories during these experiences. Look for Harry McCawley’s column Thursday on Opinion.