Veteran Affairs Officer Larry Garrity has his turn on Indy Honor Flight

Photo provided Bartholomew County Veteran Affairs Officer Larry Garrity returns from his Indy Honor Flight experience.

Over the past 10 years, Bartholomew County Veteran Affairs Officer Larry Garrity has known many veterans from Columbus and surrounding areas chosen for the Indy Honor Flight.

But this month, it was Garrity himself who was sent to Washington D.C. to be honored with several others for serving in the military.

A nonprofit based in Plainfield, Indy Honor Flight transports veterans to see their memorials in Washington D.C. for free. In choosing who gets to go, the organization’s website states top priority is given to the oldest applicants, as well as those with terminal illnesses. The objective is to honor these veterans before it’s too late.

Joining the U.S. Army on Dec. 1, 1966, Garrity was originally stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. As a member of the 403rd Transportation Company, he was assigned to duty in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. The Cummins, Inc. retiree and former electrical shop owner was already 71 when he was appointed Bartholomew County Veteran Affairs Officer in July 2018.

Garrity has long known that he had been selected for IHF #40, which was originally scheduled to depart Indianapolis on Sept. 16, 2023. However, the late summer flight was delayed by Hurricane Lee, which briefly threatened the eastern coast before weakening off-shore and losing its hurricane status.

Although spouses are not allowed on honor flights, veterans are required to select a guardian to look after their well-being. Garrity said he chose John Holguin, a fellow Vietnam War veteran and minister whom he befriended through church.

On the night of April 12, the festivities of IHF #40 got underway with a meet-and-greet at Plainfield High School. The attendees, including Garrity and Holguin, spent the night at a hotel near Indianapolis International Airport because they were required to wake up at 4 a.m. the next morning, Garrity said.

“It was like basic training,” Garrity said. “Except the bed was a little more comfortable.”

All of the 89 veterans chosen for IHF#40 that departed Indianapolis at 8 a.m. on April 13 served in either the Korean or Vietnam War, he said.

When the flight arrived at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the vets were greeted by lines of enthusiastic supporters expressing their gratitude for their military service.

The first stop was the Marine Corps War Memorial, which draws crowds to see its statue of the iconic second flag-raising on Iwo Jima in February 1945.

Next was Arlington National Cemetery, where the veterans watched the changing of the guards. It was there that Garrity learned the U.S. military is extremely strict with those who participates in Arlington’s solemn ceremonies.

In order to be chosen for the two-year assignment, the guards are required to sign a pledge that they will not drink, smoke or be out late at all times, Garrity said.

“These are young men who are 19, 20, 21,” he added. “That’s the age when men want to go out for a good time.”

What most Americans don’t know is that each Arlington guard must also maintain a 29-inch waist measurement, Garrity said. If they don’t, they will be reassigned, he said.

The next stop was the World War II Memorial – a tribute to the legacy of “The Greatest Generation.” But reality brought Garrity a certain degree of sadness. He had learned that his Honor Flight was the first without a World War II veteran, he said.

The National WWII Museum estimates that only 100,000 of America’s 16 million World War II veterans are still alive. As of April, 2023, only 4,583 of those veterans lived in Indiana, according to museum statistics.

When the buses arrived at the Vietnam War Memorial, there was much Garrity wanted to see. But he was also looking for one specific name among the 58,318 carved into the wall.

He finally found the name of his cousin and took an etching of it. Pfc. William Kenneth Garrity was only 20 when the Indianapolis resident was killed in action during the early morning hours of Feb. 1, 1970.

While the veterans enjoyed some sight-seeing from the buses, the 19 stainless steel statues of soldiers and sailors that make up the Korean War Veterans Memorial was the final stop, Garrity said. Although often called “The Forgotten War,” more than 54,000 Americans died during that conflict from June 1950 to July 1953.

It was then time to return to the airport and board the plane home. After touching down in Indianapolis, the veterans were again honored at Plainfield High School by walking through a line filled with cheering supporters and large photographs depicting younger versions of themselves in military garb.

“It was like going through a gauntlet,” Garrity recalled.

At the end of the gauntlet were six ladies in mid-20th Century fashion. By having six ladies, three veterans could receive hugs and cheek kisses from two ladies at one time.

“And you walk away with red lipstick all over you,” the Veteran Affairs officer said with a laugh.

An Honor Flight spokeswoman said the wives of the veterans usually find the huge lipstick marks on their husband’s faces hilarious.

Since the elderly veterans had just completed a long and exhausting day, Garrity said they were given one last courtesy: a safe, chauffeured ride from the school to their individual homes.

As he reflected back on the trip, Garrity said what he appreciated most was seeing Americans pay respect to men and women they don’t even know for one reason: service to their country.