21Country: On the 37th Northeast Indiana Honor Flight

Special events take place during first-ever June trip
Published: Jun. 10, 2022 at 12:26 AM EDT
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WASHINGTON (WPTA) - Long before the sun began to rise over Fort Wayne, dozens of veterans were bright-eyed, eating breakfast to fuel up for a memorable trip to the nation’s capitol. They had yet to learn just how special the day would be, as they made final preparations for the 37th Northeast Indiana Honor Flight. Stops planned in Washington, DC include memorials for WWII, Vietnam, the Korean War, the Arlington Cemetery, and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “It’s going to be a full day. They’re going to be exhausted but they’re all going to be happy,” HFNEI board president Cathy Berkshire told us.

The trip planned to see 44 Cold War, 19 Vietnam War, 18 Korean War, and 5 Desert Storm/Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, and 1 World War II vet. Of them, 35 served in two or more eras, and four of them were women. “Anyone that ever wore the uniform for our country, deserves the Honor Flight,” she added. “We’re taking a new set of veterans on every trip. They are excited to see the memorials built in their honor. Most of them have not seen their memorials… you know, sometimes they’ll talk about memories and things that happened in the service they never talked about. It’s kind of a healing experience we think.”

Cold War veteran Fred Fox told us, “I’m looking forward to seeing all the sites of DC, and the memories of the soldiers that went before, and their gravesites as well.” Volunteer Tyler Linder served as Fox’s guardian on the trip to document each memorial visit and assist the veteran in any way — though truthfully, Fox is in great health, and he needed his companion to be so as well. “Fred’s family couldn’t make it today, so I was assigned to be Fred’s guardian because Fred said he needed someone to be able to keep up to him,” Linder shared, “and I was top of the list for that!” Fox, and over 80 other veterans boarded a chartered plane on the 122nd Fighter Wing base, to applause as they departed for their trip.

Timing for the flight, was a first for the organization. In an effort to “make up” for lost time during the pandemic, organizers added an additional spring flight in June. Heat added an additional factor that the HFNEI board navigated with frequent distribution of water, and strategically planned breaks in the air conditioned busses, or shade near the memorials.

At every location the veterans visited, they were greeted with a standing ovation — complete strangers, travelers, tourists and students who paused to show their respects for 21Country’s great heroes. “The biggest surprise of course, was going to all the places with 100 people cheering and clapping,” Danny Liechty said. “I didn’t know what to say you know — except thank-you! It just seemed like that wasn’t enough. But it was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on.” U.S. Senator Todd Young greeted those at the trips first stop, at the World War II Memorial. South Bend native Ralph Lybarger, of the Marine Corps, was the Honor Flights’ sole WWII veteran. “I joined the marines to fight, never fired a shot… but I served my time, doing what they told me to do,” he told us. “I think its wonderful that everybody appreciates what every one of those veterans has done.”

Accompanied by his daughter, Van Wert veteran Fred Hartwig spent time at the Korean War Memorial — he served in the army during that time. A special moment for him, as he missed opportunities to be on the Honor Flight four times: in 2020 during the pandemic, and the last couple trips after suffering from a heart attack. “I didn’t realize it was that many names over here, that there was that many that got killed,” he told us, “because nobody did hear much about them.” His wife encouraged him to go, despite the plan to spend June 8, their 70th wedding anniversary, across the country.

It’s hard to find a more beautiful backdrop, as the US Marine Corps performed a silent drill. As the veterans lined up to watch — behind them, the Lincoln Memorial, and in front, the Washington monument. After the perfectly executed routine, the young men lined up thanking each veteran for their service. They also posed for a photo with the great-granddaughter of John Basilone, who served as a guardian to three US Marines on this trip. The late Medal of Honor recipient is having a new Navy Destroyer named after him: the USS John Basilone.

Four female veterans on the trip, were recognized at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. The announcement was unexpected for Linda DeWeese (Cold War & Vietnam), Allissa Barnhorst (active military, Afghanistan), Valerie Loebach (Leganon/Grenada, Panama, Desert Shield/Desert Storm), and Carolyn Gunder (Cold War & Vietnam). “I thought I was just coming in to look at the Memorial — I didn’t know anything about this at all! I’m surprised, and honored,” Gunder told ABC21. “It’s amazing, that they’re even honoring women because sometimes we get forgotten and women now and days are stepping up and going out to war, because Just before I got out they started letting women on ships!”

Next, a somber visit to Arlington Cemetery for a chance to touch one or two of the hundreds of thousands of gravestones on site. They were able to witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Several veterans for the high honor, to lay a wreath at the tomb. “The world now is looking at soldiers as they should, because many have given their life — they have laid their life down for freedom of this country,” veteran Ike Fincher said.

Tired from a long day, the veterans had just a couple more sights to see. The bus route took them around the Iwo Jima Memorial, before a dinner planned at the US Air Force Memorial. There, they were treated with a viewing of the US Air Force Drill Team. With that, the day concluded. Weather created a flight delay, but passengers waiting to return home, sang songs to pass the time as it sat on the tarmac. Thanks and recognitions were given to two retiring board members: Dennis Covert (president) and Camille Garrison (public relations). High in the sky, they received “letters from home” — heartfelt messages from friends, family, and strangers, expressing thanks for their commitment to country, and sacrifice.

Upon returning to the Fort Wayne International Airport, framed photos from their trip already printed, and a gift bag as they left. Dozens of people were lined outside the terminal clapping and cheering enthusiastically so late at night, giving them a warm welcome home. “I’m so grateful,” Fincher shared. “I would encourage any soldier or veteran to go on this trip. I would encourage them to do so, because it’s an experience of a lifetime.”

Honor Flight Northeast Indiana resumed its journeys this past spring, following the cancellation of numerous planned trips at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who know of a veteran interested in a future flight can access information on the application process online.

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