Arlene Burch's parents got a big surprise for Christmas in 1949 -- notification that their daughter was joining the U.S. Navy.
"The Navy sent my parents a letter,'' said Burch, who then 23, had already enlisted, knowing her father didn't believe women should serve in the military. "I didn't know they were going to do that. I didn't need permission, but my parents accepted it.''
Now, 88, the Warwick, R.I., native and longtime Surfside Beach resident enjoyed the opportunity to look back on her three-year stint on a recent Honor Flight program trip to Washington, D.C., to see the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Burch received a hero's return -- gifts and 29 cards and letters (some with photos) from loved ones (mail call) on her April 16 flight from Myrtle Beach International Airport to a tour of veterans memorials in Washington and a greeting from a crowd of well-wishers at the airport on her return that evening.
The not-for-profit Honor Flight program takes veterans on trips to Washington, D.C., to see memorials from their time in the service. Priority is given to the oldest applicants.
Burch's son, Michael, a retired veteran who also lives on the Grand Strand, accompanied her.
"I cried every minute,'' said Burch of receiving gifts at the airport.
"It took me three days to be OK.''
Michael, daughter Jaci and daughter-in-law Debbie had spent days gathering their mother's mail from friends and family.
"She was overwhelmed by all the heart-felt messages she received,'' said Michael Burch, who was deployed more than a half-dozen times in 27 years in the Air Force. "During all my deployments, I never had anyone greet me at the airport, so when I saw the greeting these heroes were receiving, I was thrilled to be a part of it.''
The Korean War memorial takes the form of a triangle intersecting a circle. More than 2,500 photographic, archival images of land, sea and air troops are sandblasted into black granite walls. Within the triangle are 19 larger-than-life-sized statues representing squads from each branch of the armed forces.
Almost 42,000 U.S. soldiers were killed or missing in action in Korea. Tired after viewing the Korean War Veterans Memorial, just south of the Reflecting Pool at the National Mall, Burch didn't think she would be able to walk over to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the other side of the pool.
"Two men helped me into a wheelchair. And one of them pushed me over there in a wheelchair,'' she said. "He told me, 'That's what I'm here for. Live it up.' ''
While in the Navy, Burch had worked in an office that once occupied the ite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial's wall lists the names of the almost 60,000 veterans who gave their lives in Vietnam.
"It was wonderful,'' said Burch. "I'll never forget the trip.''
Performing clerical duties at an office in Washington, Burch served during the Korean War. While there, she met her husband, Roy, a Navy accountant.
They had two sons and one daughter. Roy Burch died 21 years ago.
Ironically, she needed permission from the Navy to get married while in the service.
"I worked in communications, teletype, radio -- I was busy,'' she said.
"If I hadn't gotten married and had a family I would have made it a career. Where else could a woman from Rhode Island meet and marry a man from South Carolina in the 1950s?''
The Burches made stops in Hawaii, Washington and Bayonne, N.J., before retiring to Surfside Beach in the 1970s. Arlene Burch worked 17 years at H & R Block.
Roy Burch had grown up in Columbia and Charleston and knew of a peaceful beach community near the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.
When they arrived in Surfside Beach, the city had only one paved road, Surfside Boulevard, and one small A&P grocery story.
"The Southern hospitality was so nice,'' Burch said. "I wouldn't live any place else.''
But the chance for a one-day visit to Washington was a thrill. When she heard about the Honor Flight program, she was surprised to learn that deployment wasn't required to be eligible.
"Am I entitled?'' she remembers asking. "I didn't do anything special. So many of those soldiers went through so much more than I did. I was honored to make that trip.''