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Aging Central Georgia war veterans take 'very emotional' Honor Flight to DC

Middle Georgia Honor Flight prioritizes trips for survivors of World War II, whose numbers are dwindling every day.

MACON, Ga. — Snow and rain were blowing sideways when a Contour flight carrying 16 midstate war veterans touched down at the Baltimore-Washington Airport.

The deep chill in the air March 12 was no match for the warm welcome at the terminal for the arrival of the first Honor Flight of 2022 – an all-expense paid trip offered through a network of hubs around the country for those who fought the nation’s battles. The last flight from Central Georgia touched down in 2019 before COVID-19 emerged.

“My lords, my ladies, make way for the Middle Georgia Honor Flight with veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam,” bellowed the official town crier of Annapolis, dressed in colonial regalia and ringing a hand bell for the occasion.

Airport travelers getting a bite to eat stopped to applaud the men, many in their 90s, as they rolled by in wheelchairs or walked with their guardians.

World War II veteran Rudy Blackwell, a plumber from Milledgeville, was days shy of his 99th birthday as he waved to the clapping people.

“I was a gunner mate on three different ships. I’ve never been to the monuments,” Blackwell said as the men gathered before dawn on a blustery Saturday morning at Middle Georgia Regional Airport.

“Hey, you’re an old one,” joked Macon’s Robert Buck, who turns 98 in June.

“I’m probably the oldest one here,” Blackwell correctly claimed.

Middle Georgia Honor Flight prioritizes trips for survivors of World War II, whose numbers are dwindling every day.

Since the global pandemic suspended flights, 14 veterans on the waiting list have passed away, said volunteer flight captain Roger Jennings, of Bonaire, who has a combined 47 years of military and civilian service with the U.S. Air Force.

“It’s my passion to see these gentlemen that came before us, to be able to take them up and see the monuments that they might never have seen before, and just honor them the entire day,” Jennings said. “Very emotional for us as leaders of Honor Flight and the veterans themselves, you know. It’s a very emotional day.”

‘Unbelievable, humbling’

Ralph Avery was all smiles as he posed with two active-duty military members stationed near the nation’s capital who were serving as guides for the day.

“How wonderful life is,” said Avery, a 94-year-old Bronze Star-decorated Korean veteran from Gordon.

His son, Michael Avery, of Macon, paid his own way to serve as his father’s guardian for the day. The younger Avery only learned of his dad’s medal during the trip.

“It’s just really unbelievable, humbling,” Michael Avery said before pausing to gain his composure. “I get teary-eyed real easy. But when you come up on a group of people and they’re all congratulating these guys, they need that.”

When the Honor Flight tour bus pulled up at the World War II Memorial on that raw, blustery day, a handful of people holding flags were waiting as 96-year-old Keith Lancaster, of Hawkinsville, rolled up in a wheelchair.

“You’re looking at a genuine bombardier and gunner from a B-24 during World War II,” said guardian Barry Ray, of Kathleen.

“Wow. I would hug you, but I won’t,” said the woman with a firm grip on a flag that read “a grateful nation remembers.”

“Thank you for your service,” said the others there to greet the veterans.

In amazement, Lancaster made his way under one of the monument’s laurel wreaths of victory.

“I had no idea it was so large. The pictures don’t do it justice. Bob Dole really did a good job. I really respect him,” Lancaster said of the late senator who helped organize the tribute and frequently greeted soldiers there.

As Lancaster moved deeper into the memorial, he thought of the men in the U.S. Army Air Corps that flew 33 missions with him over Germany, southern France and Yugoslavia.

“The rest of the crew, they’re not here,” Lancaster said with his voice struggling through the emotion of the moment. “It is really something… hard to believe.”

His son, Kert Lancaster, a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran from Bonaire, accompanied his father on the trip.

“I learned a lot in the last few years,” Kert Lancaster said. “He never really talked much about it prior to the last couple of years. So this, all of this stuff, has kind of been eye-opening.”

The memories started flowing after his father reunited in recent years with his squadron, but now he is the sole survivor of the group.

‘It feeds my soul’

Volunteer guide Laura Nelson-Bolick, who lives near the nation’s capital and regularly leads Honor Flight tours, said the trip can be therapeutic.

“I watch so many of them go home, and burdens have been lifted because it’s OK,” Nelson-Bolick said while awaiting the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. “It’s OK that they came home or that they can tell their stories now. A lot of the World War II (veterans) won’t even talk and they’re starting now. They’ve lost a spouse, they’ve lost their anchors. And to watch family hear about their family and start to understand it, it feeds my soul.”

Chuck Taylor, an 89-year-old veteran of Korea and Vietnam who lives in Lizella, wanted to see the Iwo Jima and Korean War memorials.

“I’m looking forward to touching ‘em,” said Taylor, who had only seen pictures. “This brings things to mind. Of course, thinking about going to DC to the monuments, you start thinking about where you’ve been. Marine Corps took me to a lot of places, and they’ve been good and they’ve been bad. Marine Corps was good to me and I’m glad I served.”

The day-long tour also stopped at the Vietnam Wall, Lincoln Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, U.S. Navy Memorial and Air Force Memorial, that was dedicated in 2006.

Pard Ward, of Greensboro, who had occupation duty at the end of World War II and served during Korea, will mark his 93rd birthday in June.

“Man, we’ve got a lot to cover in one day, but it’s well organized. The itinerary is excellent,” Ward said at the start of the trip. “The World War II veterans are really dying now in large numbers and the ones like myself who went in young and late in the World War II era are going to be the only ones left in a short while. I’m really blessed.”

‘You’ve got mail’

On the trip home, the Honor Flight crew passed out mailbags stuffed with cards and letters.

“You’ve got mail,” Jennings called out on the plane’s loudspeaker. The messages to read from family, friends and Warner Robins school children sweetened the ride.

At the Vietnam Wall, U.S. Air Force veteran Hamp Davis, of Lizella, searched to no avail for the names of his high school friends killed overseas. Davis, 70, learned of apps now available to locate lost loved ones on the memorial.

“I’m a Vietnam vet and I really haven’t seen it since it’s been up. A dream come true to get this ride today,” Davis said.

U.S. Army veteran Stanley Winfield, of Warner Robins, didn’t find the names of the men lost in his unit, either, but he found new comrades on the trip.

“I tell you, in spite of the coldness and the snow, I have really enjoyed myself. It’s just a good experience and the camaraderie with the other vets is just awesome.” the 72-year-old Winfield said. “The adjustment back into society has been just a challenge. But as a true believer, by the grace of God, I am where I am now.”

Despite weather delays on the flight home, dozens of people were waiting at the Middle Georgia Airport for the plane to land at about 10 p.m.

The flag-waving crowd lined the terminal and greeted the veterans with cheers and trinkets.

If these men didn’t have a hearty homecoming decades ago, they have this one to treasure.

Five more Honor Flights are scheduled for 2022. For more information about registering for a trip, to donate to the cause or volunteer to pay travel expenses to serve as a guide, visit middlegahonorflight.org.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian traveled as a media representative on the Middle Georgia Honor Flight. She covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at fabian_lj@mercer.edu or 478-301-2976.

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