By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
I am normally an early riser; in fact, my idea of sleeping in really late is about 8 a.m. or so, but I got up exceptionally early on Wednesday morning, June 6. By 1:30 a.m., I was in the Walmart parking lot near Princeton. Everyone had to be on time because our bus had to arrive in Washington, D.C. in time for a security sweep. We were going to visit both the House and Senate sides of the Capitol building, and it was empty your pockets and step through the metal detector time.
It’s not that our party had any dangerous characters who were a threat to the public. On the contrary, they were people who had given up years of their lives and even risked their lives in order to serve their country.
Our day-long journey was the first Always Free First Flight from West Virginia to visit the new World War II Memorial in our nation’s capitol. The program gives veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and other veterans who served during other periods of our nation’s history an opportunity to see these tributes to their service.
Naturally, I grabbed a cup of coffee while en route to the rendezvous, but what caffeine I allowed myself didn’t go too far. The night was classic pitch black with rain, so soon those of us sitting in back had the disconcerting sensation of being in motion without seeing where we were going.
After several hours, our bus was in the famous Washington D.C. gridlock. Gradually, all of the familiar national landmarks started coming into view. We could see the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the distance. One huge building dominated the view to our left. Soon we realized that it must be the Pentagon. Huge helicopters usually associated with the president buzzed in the classic skyline.
Finally, we arrived outside the Capitol. Specialized barriers and armed security personnel were everywhere. The bus was “swept,” and we were allowed to disembark.
Uniformed representatives of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines greeted the veterans as they got off the bus. We seemed to be one of many tours at the complex that day, but the veterans were warming to often overdue attention. After a security check that required us to empty our pockets before walking through a metal scanner, we entered the House side of the Capitol building.
Soon the veterans were meeting with U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., visited the veterans to thank them for their service. Then a guide took us through a maze of marble and elevators — we actually saw the cornerstone laid by George Washington himself — and found ourselves in the Senate where U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin hosted them at his Wednesday coffee get together; the ornate room made a lot of us feel like we were about to testify before Congress, I’m sure. U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller had stopped by earlier, but he had to attend a committee meeting and was unable to meet the veterans.
Another trip on the bus and the circular avenues brought us to the World War II Memorial. Local elementary students cheered the veterans when they arrived, and their faces lit up with smiles. Here was their monument, that promise in stone that their contributions would not be forgotten. One Vietnam veteran said the warm greetings brought tears to his eyes.
People came up to them to offer handshakes and I kept hearing different renditions of, “Thank you for your service. God bless you.”
The new memorial recognizes the veterans of each state; every state and territory has its own marker, so veterans were getting their picture taken next to the marker bearing the name West Virginia.
After lunch, we boarded the bus again and visited the Vietnam War Memorial and the Korean War Memorial. Hundreds of people were there. At the Vietnam wall, visitors were taking pictures of specific names or making rubbings of them. I could see flowers left behind for the memory of loved ones.
In these places, the visiting veterans were still being thanked by a grateful public. Even more important, the veterans were happy to share their memories. One remembered being shelled by German artillery during and after D-Day while working to unload shiploads of supplies that included bombs. A Vietnam-era veteran who served in Korea remembered that Americans serving there were far from safe; in fact, many were killed. North Korean soldiers would shoot at them from across the border, and the rules of engagement forbade shooting back. Leaders back home didn’t want to start a new war while the one in Vietnam still raged. I hope to tell many of these accounts in the Daily Telegraph’s upcoming Pride edition.
The June 6 visit, sponsored by the Denver Foundation and Little Buddy Radio, was the first of its kind from West Virginia. Hopefully other veterans will be able to make the journey.
Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.