BY MARCUS CONSTANTINO
for the Daily Telegraph
Thirty area veterans traveled to Washington, D.C. Wednesday for a special day made possible by volunteers from near and far.
The Denver Foundation’s Always Free Honor Flight buses veterans from Princeton to Washington twice a year. Foundation president Dreama Denver said the trip gives deserving veterans an opportunity to see their war memorials they may have never had otherwise.
“There really is nothing more rewarding than honoring these brave heroes and seeing these brave men with tears in their eyes,” Denver said. “We just had a veteran come up to us and say he had never been to D.C., and if it hadn’t been for Always Free Honor Flight and the Denver Foundation, he wouldn’t have been able to come to D.C. That right there is enough.”
The veterans were greeted at the U.S. Capitol by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Reps. Nick Joe Rahall, D-W.Va., David McKinley, R-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. Manchin and Capito spoke to the roomful of veterans, commending them for their service.
Capito said her father is a World War II veteran who recently turned 90. Besides her swearing in as congresswomen, Capito said one of the most emotional moments she has had in Washington was the day she and her father and mother went to the World War II memorial for the first time.
“I’m so pleased there are different generations that are going to be able to see the pride in a younger generation’s eyes looking at an older generation that got on those ships and boats when they were 17, 18, 19 years old and left their families for years to protect our families and liberties,” Capito said. “I hope it has that same emotional effect on you that it does on families all across this country.”
After touring the Capitol, the veterans went to the World War II memorial where a group of about 30 volunteers surprised them with signs of support and flags in hand. Ashley Judah, 18, of Silver Spring, Md., said the group organized over Facebook to give the men a warm welcome.
“You almost want to get emotional because you can tell by the look on their faces they were surprised,” Judah said. “They weren’t expecting to see us here. You can tell it means a lot to them.”
For the first time, a Flags of our Heroes ceremony was held for the veterans. Denver Foundation team members were able to honor their deceased fathers with the flags from their caskets. The ceremony was capped off with the sounding of “Taps” by Rich Nuckolls, who traveled from Georgia to play his trumpet for the veterans.
Claude Jones, 91, World War II veteran from Lewisburg, fought back tears as he looked at the memorial.
“This day makes the four years I spent in the Army well worthwhile,” Jones said. “Why? Because you’re seeing a few people that really appreciate what went on and what we all gave. If you didn’t give your life, you gave time – and I did give four years. It’s impressive and it’s touching, both.”
The Vietnam and Korean War veterans also got the opportunity to see their respective memorials. Walter Mankins, 85, served in the U.S. Army and was deployed to Korea within days of the beginning of the war. He said looking at the 19 stainless steel statues of soldiers donning ponchos scattered throughout the memorial reminded him of the time he served in Korea.
“It was raining, snowing, everything else over there,” Mankins said. “It brings back a lot of memories. I can just see myself standing right there now back in 1950.
“I had a lot of buddies who was killed over there in the early part of the war,” Mankins said through tears. “This is my first trip here to see that.”
Denver said the average age of veterans on Wednesday’s trip was 90. She said she is humbled by the gratitude the veterans show for the opportunity to go on the trip.
“When someone gentle and kind and grateful beyond belief, comes up to me and thanks me for making this possible, for giving them from what they tell me what is probably one of the biggest days of their lives… Honestly, what could be better?” Denver said. “You really feel this love in your heart for them that’s hard to explain. It is a gratifying, rewarding thing to be a part of.”
Coulbourne said veterans interested in going on The Denver Foundation's fourth honor flight, which will take place sometime in September or October, can contact her at 304-425-8660 or 304-320-6032 for an application. She said priority is given to World War II and Korean War veterans.