America’s appreciation for old soldiers has not faded away

America’s appreciation for old soldiers has not faded away

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comSeptember 29, 2012 

Ladies, if your husband came home from the Honor Flight South Carolina trip to Washington on Wednesday with lipstick on his cheek, I know the culprit.

Jodie Swacha plants big kisses on World War II veterans as they walk, hobble, limp and are wheeled into Reagan National Airport for one of the more memorable days of lives that now stretch to nine decades.

They arrive on Honor Flights, which since 2005 have helped get more than 80,000 veterans to the capital at no personal cost to see memorials in their honor before it’s too late.

I knew about the jam-packed, daylong trips. Beaufort and Hilton Head Island volunteers have been sending vets to Washington for several years. Their next trip is Oct. 19. But not until I joined the Wednesday trip did I know about the outpouring of gratitude shown by everyday Americans.

Swacha is a regular in the army of volunteers who greet almost 100 Honor Flights a year at Reagan National Airport.

The first to shake hands with the South Carolinians was a little boy whose father soon will be deployed to Afghanistan. As star-struck older men ambled into the terminal, a brass quintet played, and people held up posters and balloons, waved flags and put down baggage to salute.

And then came Swacha’s smooch with super-sturdy Target Red 308 lipstick, recommended by her swim instructor.

“I’ve got to get this off before I go home,” said one of the 85 veterans. But even after visiting memorials for World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Abraham Lincoln, the Air Force and Marine Corps, and after seeing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, many still had lipstick traces on their cheeks when they came rolling and limping back to the airport for the flight home to Columbia.

This time, a jazz band was playing at Gate 38. And Swacha was back after spending her day as a volunteer tour guide for an Honor Flight from Franklin County, Mo. On Saturday, she led a group from Canton, Ohio. On Monday, she’ll lead a group from Wausau, Wis., and on Tuesday, she’ll have a Gulf Coast group.

I asked her why she does it.

“Why not?” she replied.

‘Honoring my father’

Steve Nelson’s graying hair falls well below the shoulders of his black leather vest as he shakes the hand of each veteran. Nelson is a Vietnam veteran who greets three to four Honor Flights a week as a volunteer with Rolling Thunder Maryland Chapter One.

From beneath a bushy mustache, he says things like, “Thank you for kicking their ass.”

His father served in World War II. “These guys fought a war,” he told me. “And they finished a war for my freedom and your freedom.”

Wednesday’s trip was sponsored by the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. It sees the trip as fulfilling one of its principles: concern for the community. But it also uses its reach into the rural areas of the state to help the network find more veterans willing and able to go.

About 30 guardians for the veterans went on the trip, each paying $500 for expenses. Some of them load and unload wheelchairs all day. Some are sons and daughters of the veterans. U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land was a guardian, as was someone from every congressional office serving South Carolina.

Three doctors went along as volunteers, including Dr. Ed Moore of Columbia, who said the S.C. Military History Club donates the “World War II Veteran” caps the men wear.

Columbia high school teacher Perry McLeod went for about the 20th time — always taking a day off and recording every move with his camera.

Volunteer Terry Pound, retired education director at SCETV, said his father died the year before Honor Flights started. “Every time I do it, I feel like I’m honoring my father,” he said.

Saving civilization

Five veterans from the Palmetto Electric Cooperative area went on the trip, helped along by three co-op employees.

Two of the veterans have known each other all their lives. Richard “Bubba” Crosby and John “J.W.” Harper Jr. of the Hardeeville area seemed to speak their own language. Crosby is a retired farmer who at one time planted 500 acres of tomatoes on Hilton Head. He’s better known for his daffodil fields in Pritchardville, or for playing softball until he was 79. Harper is a retired rural mail carrier in Hardeeville who remembers when he could hold in one hand all the mail that would go to Hilton Head three days a week.

Calvin Swan of Sun City Hilton Head, a retired engineering geologist, said it made his day when his daughter and her children, Diane, Nick and Blake Pohanka, met him at the World War II Memorial.

Jim McKnight of Bluffton retired from the Internal Revenue Service and now helps people with their taxes.

Bob McDonald of Indigo Run on Hilton Head joined the Navy in 1944 at age 17. He was a Seabee building roads and airstrips on islands in the Pacific, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. After the war, he started selling cars on no salary and ended up co-owning a dealership.

When the veterans got back to Columbia, their path through the airport terminal was lined with hundreds of people, including some of the same motorcycle-riding veterans who sent them off that morning. Children perched on their parents’ shoulders, S.C. Highway Patrol troopers stood at attention like mannequins, ROTC cadets had swords drawn, and the 282nd Army Band from Fort Jackson played “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “America the Beautiful.”

Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell was the first to greet each veteran, saying to each one, “Thank you for saving civilization.”

By this time, I knew what the old soldiers were thinking: “You’re welcome, but where’s the bathroom?”

If nothing else, they had some lipstick to take care of.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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