Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Vietnam veteran Ernie Baker searched the tens of thousands of names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall Wednesday in Washington. With the help of an attendant, he walked to a column of names, scanned his eyes down and slowly moved his finger to the name of his former neighbor in Raysel.
“There he is,” Baker said frankly, looking back at his brother, Johnny, and pointing at the name “GRAT ALBERT KEENE” engraved into the cold slate.
The memorials bring back harsh realities to the soldiers who served in those conflicts, but they also pay homage to those who served their country.
The Denver Foundation’s “Always Free Honor Flight” program hopes to give all West Virginia veterans the chance to experience the emotions of walking through their own war memorial.
The foundation’s second honor flight departed from Princeton early Wednesday morning, Oct. 3, with 29 veterans; six from World War II, five from the Korean War and 18 from the Vietnam War.
“There is something about hanging with heroes – true American heroes – for a day,” said Dreama Denver, president of the Denver Foundation. “This is about as good as it gets.”
Denver and Pam Coulbourne organized the 24-hour-long bus trip, which took veterans to the U.S. Capitol, and the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials free of charge.
Veterans received a tour of the Capitol building, followed by a meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) via videoconference, and representatives for Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).
Manchin thanked the veterans for their service and read an excerpt from an entry he wrote for the Congressional Record about the group of West Virginia veterans, addressed to the President.
“They all served this great country – some abroad, some stateside; some as corporal, some as captain…” Manchin wrote to President Barack Obama in the document. “But no matter what the war, not matter the rank, no matter the duty, every one of them answered the call of this country.”
At the age of 87, Gale Brown, of Belva, W.Va., was one of the oldest veterans on the Oct. 3 honor flight. He stood in attention and saluted the American flag as “Taps” was played in the World War II memorial.
“That area where all the stars are, that’s indicating all the heroes,” Brown said, pointing at a wall with 4,048 gold stars over a reflecting pool, each representing 100 American fatalities in the war.
“We weren’t heroes; we came back. Heroes didn’t,” Brown paused. “We know that.”
Brown’s oldest son, Walt Brown, a 1998 graduate of Marshall University’s medical school, chaperoned his father around the war memorials. He smiled as his father shared stories with other veterans.
“You can tell it brings back some memories and sparks some stories from him,” Walt Brown laughed. “He’s having a good time”
Charles E. Byrd, 87, of Lizemores, W.Va., saw the World War II memorial for the first time in his life on the honor flight bus trip. He snapped photos from his wheelchair with a film camera as a Mercer County JROTC student escorted him around.
“It gives you chill bumps,” Byrd said of the memorial. “It kindly breaks you a little bit because it brings back your memory when you read what you see here.
“It means something,” Byrd said. “I think they’re proud of the armed forces to spend this kind of money on this.”
Steven Harris, 62, of Ronceverte, W.Va., received two bronze stars during his service in Vietnam. The Bronze Star, the fourth-highest ranking United States military decoration, is awarded to recognize the courageous actions of troops.
Until recently, he kept his high honors a secret because, like many other returning Vietnam veterans, he faced criticism and ridicule in the States.
“Up until probably eight years ago, I didn’t want anybody to know I was a veteran,” Harris said. “I didn’t want to be put down, I guess. Even some of my high school buddies didn’t want anything to do with me because I was a Vietnam veteran and I don’t know why. So my way to deal with it was not letting anyone know I was a veteran.”
Harris said he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall four years ago. He said the experience brought back a lot of memories and hurt, but also helped him close some chapters in his life.
He wanted to go on the honor flight to see the other war memorials, meet veterans from other wars and feel better about his selfless service he denied for more than three decades.
“It’s a way for me to know that my country does care for me,” Harris said. “Hearing Mr. Manchin there, and Mr. Rahall’s letter, it tells me that there’s people out there that care.”
Stanley Bompus, 65, of Huntington, served state-side during the Vietnam War. He said he was taken aghast by the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
“To me, it was kind of disheartening,” Bompus said. “When you see the names, you know that was somebody just like me and you. It was a person. Every name is somebody, and it’s kind of overwhelming.”
Bompus explained that seeing the names of people he knew took a toll on him emotionally.
“It gets to be kind of overwhelming man… I just, I didn’t look for anymore,” Bompus said
The Always Free Honor Flight is funded by donations to the Denver Foundation. Denver said a lack of community support nearly forced the cancellation of the trip, but a last-minute donation kept the honor flight on track
“We are the only honor flight in West Virginia,” Denver said. “We serve everyone in West Virginia, so we need folks in West Virginia to donate.”
Denver plans to offer two honor flights per year. West Virginia veterans can reserve a seat by calling Coulbourne at (304) 320-6032. Seats are given on a first-come, first-served basis, with priority given to World War II and Korean War veterans.
“They tell me it is one of the best days in their lives to be able to come, hang out with other veterans, get to know each other, share their stories (and) see their memorials,” Denver said. “It is truly the best day of their life and the best day of all our lives.”
Marcus Constantino can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.