June 07, 2012

Always Free First Flight arrives in D.C. amid cheers | Bluefield Daily Telegraph

WASHINGTON — Children cheered and adults offered their thanks Wednesday as West Virginia veterans of three different wars visited the World War II Memorial in the nation’s capital.

The Always Free First Flight, sponsored by the Denver Foundation and Little Buddy Radio, was the first tour of its type from West Virginia. For many southern West Virginia veterans it was the first time they had seen the promises, rendered in stone, that the sacrifices they made on behalf of their country were cherished and would not be forgotten.

Thirty-one veterans and their escorts left Princeton soon after 2 a.m. Wednesday in order to reach the nation’s capital in time for a security brief. Once the check was completed, the veterans were escorted to the House side of the Capitol to be greeted by U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

“Thank you for all your service,” Rahall said. “And welcome to your nation’s capitol. Without your service this all may not be here.”

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., visited the veterans and thanked them for their service during World War II and Vietnam. He quickly added thanks to Korean War veterans when Conrad Jenkins, 80, of Lashmeet, a Korean War veteran, reminded everyone of their service.

The veterans were then escorted to the Senate side for coffee with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., had stopped by earlier but could not be with the veterans due to a scheduling conflict. To West Virginia veterans and their families and friends filling the conference room, Manchin said the state is the most patriotic in the nation and had the most veterans per capita

“Today is your day,” Manchin said. “You all will get to see the monument in your honor.”

When the veterans disembarked from their bus at the World War II Memorial they were greeted by cheering children. Soon, they were shaking hands with other visitors at the monument and hearing again “thank you for your service” and “God bless you!”

Smiles spread on the veterans’ faces and memories were shared. Cecil Pennington, 83, of Princeton remembered lying about his age so he could enlist.

“It was the 18th of May (1944),” Pennington. “It was my birthday and I was 15. Then on the 26th, we registered and I was 18.”

He was 16 when he started serving in the Philippines.

Vietnam War Veteran Randall Lawhorn, 62, of Spanishburg said all of the positive attention was good, especially for those who had served in Vietnam. Veterans of other wars were welcomed home with parades, but the for his generation, that was not the case.

“We really didn’t get anything,” Lawhorn said. “Sometimes, we were advised to wear civilian clothes.”

Jackie Wirt, 75, of Bluefield served in Korea from 1956 to 1959 plus 21 months in Italy.

“I think it is really nice,” he said of the visit. “Gosh, we had a good turnout. The bus was full.”

Besides seeing the monuments to their contributions, the veterans had the opportunity to speak about the issues concerning them. Al Hancock of Bluefield, an Air Force Veteran and veterans advocate, reminded Manchin about the effort to establish a veteran’s clinic in Mercer County. Manchin replied that Rockefeller,  Rahall and himself were continuing to work on ensuring the veterans of their era and the new veterans coming from Iraq and Afghanistan would receive the medical care they deserve.

Pete Sternloff of Bluefield, a Vietnam veteran from the Air Force, said the cheers from the children and the warm expression of thanks were very welcome.

“That is the first time since I’ve been back from Vietnam that people clapped and cheered for us,” Sternloff said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

The veterans then proceeded to Vietnam War Memorial and the Korean War Memorial. Johnnie Williams, 66, of Bluefield and a Vietnam Era veteran, watched with hundreds of people viewing the wall, photographing or taking rubbings of the name of loved ones or former comrades.

“That’s a lot of names on the wall, a lot of names,” Williams said. “Just once section of that wall will do you in. All those lives lost.”

Williams served in Korea during the Vietnam War, but the veterans serving there were far from safe.

“A lot of people got killed in Vietnam, but a lot of people got killed in Korea too and you didn’t hear about it,” he said.

The North Korean soldiers would shoot from across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) but the Americans could not return fire, Williams said. The nation’s leaders did not want to risk starting a second war in Korea while one was still being fought in Vietnam.

A young man stopped, shook Williams’ hand and said sincerely “thank you for your service.” Williams smiled as the younger passerby walked away and said: “Somebody is teaching them well to recognize veterans.”

By:  Greg Jordan