WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – “This,” Pam Mow said, taking in an emptying tarmac at Purdue Airport Tuesday night, an American Airlines craft that had carried her crew sitting behind her, waiting for departure.
It was an hour later than she expected on Tuesday night due to the usual delays of air travel. It also was a full 21 round trips to Washington, D.C., more than she ever expected to take when, six years ago, she and Dana Vann, a fellow Gold Star mother, turned grief into action and helped organize what they figured would be the one-and-only Honor Flight of Greater Lafayette.
“This, right here,” Mow said, winding down from the 22nd and final one-day Honor Flight excursion to monuments to service in Washington, D.C. “This is what I’ll miss.”
Right here, in this case, boiled down to roughly an hour’s time, starting with the moment the charter flight landed and taxied to the terminal at the Purdue Airport, where an estimated 700 people waved U.S. flags for the faces of 84 World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans peering from the plane’s windows.
On the ground, Rick Johnson, retired from Subaru of Indiana Automotive Inc., walked the perimeter of the crowd, encouraging them to keep waving those flags that had been handed out at the gates as people had walked in. Johnson, a former board president of the Honor Flight chapter when it started, had gone on the first three trips, when the primary goal was to get surviving World War II veterans to see tributes to their service before the generation was lost.
For the next 19 flights, as the tours expanded to veterans of wars in Korea and Vietnam, Johnson stayed behind to build crowds and make sure stepping off the plane was every bit as memorable as the time in Washington, D.C., was.
“Wave your flags. Whoop and holler, all that stuff,” Johnson said. “We’re doing it again tonight. A piece of the glory goes to everybody who’s out here, because they’re a part of this thing, too.”
Disembarking veterans waved at the top of the stairs, slowly, in some cases, making their way to a phalanx of Patriot Guard Riders and Purdue ROTC members holding full-sized U.S. flags. From there, veterans funneled toward rows of hundreds of people waiting to shake their hands and welcome them home.
“No, thank you,” Wayne Newman, a 92-year-old Amy veteran from Indianapolis who served in the Philippines in World War II, told one boy after being thanked dozens of times for his service.
“The people who put this on, they did an amazing job,” said Newman, who made the trip with his brother, Willard Newman, a 94-year-old U.S. Navy veteran of World War II who lives in Economy, Indiana. “Everything. Amazing. … Look at all these people.”
Mow said that from the sendoff at the Purdue Airport to the applause that greets them when they land and along their way to see the sites in Washington, D.C., to the crowds assembled at the airport gates when they land back home, that was the point of the first Honor Flight.
“And it is with our last,” Mow said. “I can’t say that I’m overjoyed that it’s over. I’m just not sad. I’m just not going to let myself go there. I’m really proud.”
In March, Mow, Vann and other organizers of the Greater Lafayette chapter announced Honor Flight would end with Tuesday’s trip.
Since 2012, Honor Flight of Greater Lafayette – one of 131 hubs for the national nonprofit organization – has taken roughly 1,800 World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans on the 14-hour treks. As things wound down, Vann and Mow said the fundraising – each trip meant coming up with $100,000 – was taking its toll.
And if the welcome home was the reason to do it, the prep work it took to make it all happen was getting to be too much, Mow said.
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