I rise to recognize a very special event taking place tomorrow in our nation’s capital: West Virginia’s first-ever “Always Free Honor Flight,” a free trip for our veterans to see the monuments built for their service and sacrifice.
I’ve always said that West Virginia is one of the most patriotic states in this great nation, and we are so proud of the number of veterans and active duty members who have served our country with honor and distinction. The 31 veterans who are traveling to the Capitol tomorrow embody our state’s history and contributions to the freedom of this nation: 12 served in World War II, three in the Korean War, and 16 in Vietnam.
I’d like to tell you a little bit about this very special group:
These heroes engaged in combat across the globe, fighting in the Aleutian Islands, England, Normandy, France, Germany, Luxemburg, the South Pacific, the Philippines, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Some served here at home, servicing aircraft with ammunition. Some served in historic events, such as the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of the Philippines and the front in Japan. They took on different roles, serving as infantrymen, door gunners, ammunition soldiers, combat fighters, tactical fighters and medics. One brave World War II veteran received the Honor of Legion-Chevalier Award from the French Embassy.
These veterans come from all parts of our great state – from Welch to Beckley to Huntington to Princeton to Bluefield to Lester and all of the places in between.
I especially want to point out that Gene Cecil Pennington of Princeton will be joining us tomorrow. He’s the youngest West Virginia veteran of World War II – and that’s because he lied about his age to join the Navy in the 1940s and first saw combat at the age of 16. He’s 83 now, and we are so proud he will be visiting.
In addition to the veterans visiting us, a number of volunteer escorts will also be accompanying them.
Seven of these escorts will be representing their deceased fathers who served in various wars throughout the years.
Three of our World War II veterans are accompanied by their sons, who themselves are veterans of the Vietnam War.
Service is truly a family tradition in our state, and the nation.
Our veterans have a full day’s journey ahead of them tomorrow. They will leave Princeton, West Virginia at 2:15 in the morning, traveling here by bus. They will return to West Virginia after touring our beautiful Capitol building, the World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial and Iwo Jima Memorial.
These monuments to service and sacrifice have important meaning to everyone in this country, but I know that our veterans will find special meaning tomorrow when they tour these moving sites.
This is the first time for many of these veterans to see these monuments, which is why I am very grateful for the hard work of the West Virginians who made this trip possible by bringing the Honor Flight Network to our state – The Denver Foundation and Little Buddy Radio located in Princeton. These nonprofits were founded by Bob Denver – also known as Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island – and his wife Dreama, a West Virginia native. Their love of West Virginia, their vision and their dedication to service have truly been a gift to our great state.
The Honor Flight Network is an idea that started with Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force Captain who wanted to honor the veterans he had cared for over 27 years. Earl found that many of his patients couldn’t afford to see the monuments built to honor their service. So he took it upon himself to make it happen.
Earl was also a private pilot. And he offered a free flight to a World War II veteran who was also his patient. One free trip led to another, and with the help of more volunteers, Earl’s effort grew into the Honor Flight Network. The first flight took place in May 2005, and by the end of that year, Honor Flight had taken 137 World War II veterans to visit their memorial. The Honor Flight Network has expanded to cities and states around the country, and in 2011, the network transported 18,055 veterans to see their memorials – at no cost to the veterans.
In West Virginia, we are lucky to have had the Operations Manager at Little Buddy Radio in Princeton – Charlie Thomas – introduce the Honor Flight to our state. Tomorrow, Charlie will be representing his deceased father, Clifford Richardson, who served in the Navy during World War II.
I would also like to take a moment to thank the Vice President of the “Always Free Honor Flight,” Dreama Denver. She is representing her deceased father, Glen E. Peery, who served in the Army during the Korean War.
And, I would like to thank Pam Coulbourne, who has been instrumental in planning West Virginia’s first Honor Flight. She is representing her father, Francis Fluharty, an Air Force aerial photographer on a B-24 Liberator during World War II.
M. President, thanks to Charlie, Dreama and Bob Denver, Pam and the hard work of so many others, 31 veterans will be traveling to Washington tomorrow on this very special journey. I commend them for their dedication, and for giving West Virginia just one more way to say ‘thank you’ to our veterans for their service and sacrifice.
I have always said that we owe our men and women who have served more than a debt of gratitude. Showing our appreciation is something we should do each and every day. But tomorrow is a special day where we can pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our great nation.
I am so pleased that I am able to greet some of our most courageous West Virginia veterans, who are all heroes. I ask the Senate to join me in honoring these 31 veterans, and welcome them and their close friends and family to Washington, D.C. tomorrow.
Thank you, M. President, and I yield the floor.