Jim Cundall, flight coordinator and volunteer with HonorAir, told the Rotary Club of Cleveland there are usually 130 veterans on each flight.
“I feel like I have been blessed. I get to talk to everyone of these veterans, because they have to confirm they want to go on this trip once they have been selected,” Cundall said. “When they call I do not have to talk, I just have to listen. They are wonderful stories.”
The trips leave Knoxville early in the morning, tour D.C. and return to Knoxville around 8 p.m. Veterans have the opportunity to tour the World War II and Korean War monuments. They also witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in the Arlington National Cemetary. Additional sites seen from the bus, and in passing, include the Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans memorial, the United States AirForce Memorial and more.
A strict schedule is kept due to the time restraints of the day-trip.
“We have an honor guard to recognize them just before they go through security. Believe it or not, TSA gives them special consideration. We have our own line they can go through,” Cundall said.
Just before the veterans take off, the city mayor, the county mayor and other dignitaries address the gathered crowd.
A tremendous procession awaits the soldiers when they land in D.C. and return to Knoxville.
Cundall said for some it is like the homecoming they never had.
Raymond Shirley, a WWII veteran, said in a testimonial the welcome moved him to tears.
“It was in sharp contrast to the day I returned to my hometown in December 1946,” Shirley said. “When I was discharged from the Navy, following the surrender of Japan, I was given a bus ticket to my home in Sheffield, Ala.”
“I arrived unnoticed with some $50 in my pocket and no prospect of employment.”
Norm Kratschmer, a WWII veteran, said there have been three experiences in his life which made a lasting impression. The first was the day he married his wife. The second was when he arrived home on Aug. 17, 1945, because he doubted making it back alive. The third was the trip to Washington, D.C.
He described the experience as being very emotional and very memorable.
Cundall attempted to place a new picture of veterans in the Rotarians’ minds.
“You’ve got to remember. You see these guys as old guys, but they were 18 or 19-year-old-kids [during their service],” Cundall said. “The youngest soldier was 12.”
It costs approximately $60,000 for the entire trip. Each veteran’s passage costs $500.
Cundall said donations, fundraising and sponsorships make it possible to sponsor two trips a year.
The event is presented by Prestige Cleaners and sponsored by Covenant Health with lists of donors on the HonorAir website, www.honorairknoxville.com.
A total of 40 guardians accompany the veterans on the trips. These people are made up up family, friends and volunteers. In addition, two registered nurses and one doctor join the travels.
A final testimonial by Bernie Shorr captured the veterans’ feelings upon returning to Knoxville.
“When we returned at the end of the day, a large crowd welcomed us home, clapping and waving flags and thanking us for our years of service,” Shorr said. “The UT Band played ‘Rocky Top.’ We did not consider ourselves heroes, even though we were treated as heroes on this trip.”
“We just did what we had to do to win the war in the shortest possible time.”
Shorr said, “After 68 years, I now realize that the American public really does appreciate what we did.”