Memorials, appreciative public stir emotions on Honor Flight

Posted 27 October 2015 at 12:00 am

(Editor’s Note: Michelle Restivo of Albion joined her grandfather, Richard “Dick” Heard, on the Honor Flight this past weekend from Rochester to Washington, D.C. Heard, 91, is a life-long Albion resident who lives in his childhood home. He enlisted during World War II and was a radar mechanic. In February of 1943, he was called to active service from reserve status. He was stationed in six states throughout his time serving. Restivo is a kindergarten teacher in Batavia.)

By Michelle Restivo

ROCHESTER – “Folks, we’ve got a slight problem, but nothing we can’t handle.”

Steve, our Honor Flight trip leader, addressed the 54 American Veterans and their guardians at the airport gate early this past Saturday morning.

My Grandpa Dick and I were among the group waiting to board a plane to begin our Honor Flight trip to Washington DC. Our pilot had called in sick! The backup pilot was completing his FAA mandated 10-hour crew rest, and would be unable to fly our plane until 10 a.m., 4 hours later than our scheduled departure time.

The 4 other local Southwest pilots were already out on flights for the morning. So, we settled in for a bit of a wait.

Michelle Restivo and Richard Heard pose for a “selfie” from their seats on the plane.

The Rochester Honor Flight Organization is amazing. Now that I’ve seen it in action, I am in total awe. These people bend over backwards while standing on their heads, to accommodate and please our Veterans.

Soon after the delay was announced, HFO volunteers started coming around offering decks of playing cards and newspapers they had bought at the airport newsstand. Then, came the start of the continuous passing of snacks, candy, and water.

“What would you like? Can I get you anything? Please, have another.” My grandpa was in his glory. He never passed up an opportunity to dip his hand into the snack or candy bag, and at one point in the trip he had a stockpile of various snacks, four water bottles, and a Gatorade.

About halfway into our delay, Steve came back onto the PA system and told us, “Alright, we usually do this on the bus ride in to DC, but since we’re getting a late start and we’ll be here a while, we’re doing it now. Time for something you haven’t heard in a while. Mail call, guys.”

Just like in the service, he called out each service man or woman’s name, and a volunteer brought over a pack of letters. My grandpa received 8 letters, addressed to Corporal Heard.

The letters were written by Monroe County students of varying ages. He received letters from kids in 3rd, 8th, and 11th grade, as well as one teacher. Each letter was unique in its own way, but all had the same theme: gratitude for his service and his sacrifice.

The letter writers had been given information about the Vet they were writing to, including the branch of service and in which war they served. Grandpa Dick was in the Army Air Corp in World War II. Many letters included personal connections.

“This boy is interesting,” Grandpa said about one letter. “His family was from the Ukraine, and his great grandfather died while fighting on the Eastern Front.”

I took a closer look at this letter, which opened with, “I am merely a high school student,” and continued later, “I consider anybody who was in the military a war hero, whether they were in Europe, the Pacific, or stateside. People tend to forget there were people back at home helping the soldiers at the fronts get through the Imperial and Nazi empires.”

My Grandpa spent his 4 years in the service stateside, and this young man made sure to recognize the importance of that.

As promised, the pilot arrived promptly at the end of his crew rest, and our short flight to Baltimore was smooth. Hot cocoa was Grandpa’s drink of choice when the beverage service came around, and of course, he enjoyed another snack.

We de-boarded the plane and walked off the jet way, to be greeted by thunderous applause and a line of people waving American Flags. The first person in line was a young naval cadet. He reached out to shake my grandpa’s hand, “Thank you for your service, sir.” It was a phrase we would hear over and over again during the next 24 hours.

We continued down the line, Grandpa shaking hands with many thankful people along the way. After leaving our gate, we proceeded through the airport, past gates filled with people. All were on their feet, applauding the Vets with a standing ovation.

Many called out, “Thank you for your service!” as we wheeled by. It was an amazing sight, one that brought out some very raw emotion from Vets and guardians alike.

My grandpa is a man of few words, when it comes to feelings. He would love to tell you all about the latest news story he read, or information about a rare species of bird in East Africa. But, he rarely talks about himself.

Once we were situated on the bus moving on our way to Washington DC, I asked him what he thought about the airport arrival. “That was nice. It was so nice.” Indeed it was.

The bus ride included a box lunch for each of us. We were attempting to make up time, so we omitted our 1-hour stop for lunch. Grandpa was surprised to find a ham wrap inside his box.

“Oh, this is wrap. I’ve never had one of these before.” Earlier in the day, Honor Flight served us an airport breakfast of McDonald’s breakfast meals, and Grandpa had his first ever Egg McMuffin. He deemed both items, “good.” It was a day of firsts for him, that’s for sure.

As you can imagine, traveling with 54 WWII and Korean War Vets is not an easy task. The youngest Vet in our group was 81, and the oldest, 98. Each Vet was provided with a wheelchair, though I noticed some never used it. Good for them!

But, that means everywhere we went, we were loading and unloading these chairs, and transporting many of the guys in and out of them. My grandpa is ambulatory and still drives around town, does his own grocery shopping, and ventures out to his great-grand kid’s sporting contests.

However, he agreed to use a wheelchair for much of the trip, as we were often covering longer distances than he was used to. Usually, once we reached our destination, we would park the wheelchair and he would use his handy collapsible cane to motor around the historical monuments.

Noticing the similarity of when my family and I visited Disney World where each amusement ride had a large area denoted for “stroller parking” and our line of wheelchairs parked at stops all over DC, I chuckled to myself at one point.

Our first stop was Arlington Memorial Cemetery, where we watched the very respectful changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. Our trip leaders told us to look for the Sergeant and the guards to scuff their foot as they passed by our Veteran group.

Apparently, it is how they acknowledge the former servicemen, even though they are not supposed to ever scuff their feet during the ceremony. We looked and listened, and sure enough, we saw it. The inspection and changing of the guard ceremony was incredibly precise and showed the utmost respect. “That was really something,” my grandpa said after we had moved on.

Our next stop was the Women’s Memorial. We had 5 women veterans in our group, and all had asked to add this stop to our trip. Even with the lengthy delay, our HFO trip leaders made sure to honor their request.

This stop is where my grandpa was surprised when getting off the bus was another granddaughter of his, her husband, and 2 of their 3 children. They live just outside of DC, and I had been coordinating with her all morning arranging the meet up. They followed our bus for the rest of the day and toured many of the memorials with us. “Wow!” my grandpa said upon seeing our family.

Back on our bus, we circled the Marine Corp memorial, Iwo Jima, and saw the Air Force memorial from afar. Due to our altered schedule, we did not get off at those as planned.

The next stop was a big one and we covered the Lincoln Memorial, The Korean War Memorial, and the Vietnam Wall, in that order per my grandpa’s request. After seeing all three, he said the Lincoln was his favorite.

Although when I asked him later in the day on Sunday, he said he liked all of the memorials for different reasons, and that he really liked the way the Korean War Memorial was depicted.

It was at this memorial that he explained to us about the very long antennae on the radios that the soldiers carried. Since he went to radio school, he shared with us that, “low frequency antenna was used so as not to be detected.”

Grandpa also talked about Korea as being the “forgotten war” and told us that it never really ended. “That war is still being fought now,” he said.

It was here at the Korean War Memorial, that I saw one of my most memorable moments, my grandpa sitting near a wall inscribed with the words,” Freedom is not free.”

It was a poignant picture, one that really brought tears to my eyes. Squeezing all three of these memorials in during just the 45 minutes we had at this stop was tight (most people only saw two out of the three). It was a bit of a race back to our bus, but we made it thanks to speed walking/pushing skills of my cousin’s husband.

“Hurry up and wait” was something I heard many of the Vets and guardians say during our trip. Through listening to their comments and conversations, I deduced that this was a common phrase heard in the military.

One serviceman told a story about moving out, sitting in the heat all afternoon, waiting, then retreating, moving out again, and then retreating back for the night. Many of them said “hurry up and wait” originated in the military, and that they were all very good at following those orders.

Fortunately for us, it wasn’t too long of a wait before we arrived at our final stop for the day, the World War II Memorial. Our most anticipated stop, and one that exceeded anything we could have imagined.

(Michelle Restivo will have more on the Honor Flight.)