Local Vietnam veteran, Guardians take part in Honor Flight

Taking part in the recent Honor Flight were (l-r)Elon Flack, Guardian; Johnny Anderson, USMC, Claxton; Ron Day, US Army, Savannah; Jane Flack, Guardian; Mac Brown, Guardian; Tom Sandknop, US Army, St. Augustine, FL; Dixie Odom, USAF, Metter; Nancy Norton, Guardian.

Many times over the years, Metter’s Dixie Odom had been approached about participating in an Honor Flight. Repeatedly, Dixie turned down those offers, saying that she had been to Washington, DC, several times and that she would rather someone who hadn’t been to have the opportunity. 

Finally, however, Dixie agreed and she, Nancy Norton, Jane and Elon Flack and Mack Brown, all citizens of Metter, were part of a recent trip sponsored by Honor Flight Savannah.

An honor flight is a trip to Washington, DC, conducted by a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to transporting as many United States military veterans as possible to see the memorials of the wars in which those veterans fought. This is all done at no cost to the veteran. 

The current focus of the Honor Flight organization is taking World War II veterans to the National World War II Memorial and for veterans who are suffering from terminal illnesses to see the memorials to the wars in which they fought. 

Even though Dixie had been to the nation’s capital on many occasions, she found that the visit with Honor Flight Savannah was different. 

“Just being there with others who have experienced similar things made a big difference to me,” says Dixie, herself a Vietnam War veteran. 

The group that traveled together from Savannah to Washington was made up of veterans ranging from World War II to Vietnam. 

The other Metterites who were on the trip with Dixie traveled in the role of “Guardians.” On an Honor Flight, each veteran being honored must have a volunteer who accompanies him or her throughout the journey. The role of guardian is special because guardians spend the most quality time with the heroes being honored. Nancy Norton, a lifelong friend of Dixie’s, was Dixie’s guardian.

“I felt very honored to be Dixie’s guardian,” says Nancy Norton. Ironically, Honor Flight Savannah granted an exception for Nancy to be able to be Dixie’s guardian. The rules state that a guardian must be at least one generation removed, or 15 years younger, than the veteran being honored. Nancy and Dixie have known each other for their entire lives, attended Metter High School together and Nancy is one year older than Dixie. 

“We graduated one year apart,” says Nancy. 

Because Nancy met the other criteria for being a guardian, that is being physically capable of taking care of the veteran assigned, Nancy was allowed to take on the role.

The role of guardian is very important to the Honor Flight system. Each guardian is responsible for the veteran to whom he or she is assigned from the moment they arrive at the departure location until they get into a vehicle to return home from that same site. With the task of assisting the veterans with their individual needs, the goal is to ensure that each veteran has a safe and memorable trip. 

Accompanying Dixie was Nancy’s third time participating as a guardian on an Honor Flight, but it was her first time being assigned to a woman veteran and a Vietnam veteran. Her first Honor Flight was many years ago when she accompanied Lloyd Motes. The next veteran she traveled with was Carl Sego. Both were World War II veterans. Says Nancy sadly, “Both of them are gone now.”

It was a different experience traveling with Dixie, says Nancy. Of course, she and Dixie enjoyed each other’s company, even sharing a room in the host hotel. The most significant difference, though, was being with a woman veteran. Dixie says that she is used to being the only female in military-related situations. 

Nancy shares that a highlight of the trip was spending time at the Women in Military Service Memorial in Arlington Cemetery with a woman veteran. Dixie had been there before, actually attending the grand opening of the memorial about ten years ago. While the two women were at that Memorial, there were several significant happenings.

“While we were there looking at the screen of the monitor that displays women who have served in the military, Dixie’s name and information popped up,” tells Nancy. 

Another touching moment was when Dixie met another woman veteran sitting on a bench. Dixie introduced herself, and the woman said, “I was in Vietnam.” Dixie quietly replied, “I was too.” That was a shared moment between two people who truly understood one another. 

Although many women served in Vietnam, most were nurses. Very few were like Dixie, serving in something other than a medical field.

Also at the Women in Military Service Memorial, Dixie met two women who are currently serving in the military. They, along with other active duty women soldiers, said to her, “Thank you for paving the way for us.” 

As the only female veteran in this Honor Flight, Dixie stood out. Mac Brown, US Army retired with 37 years of service, was the guardian for a Korean War veteran on this his fifth Honor Flight. He noticed how people responded to Dixie. 

Mac did two tours in Iraqi Freedom. He explains his understanding of female veterans, “In Iraq, I had a gun truck team with six active duty ladies in the unit. They were right there with the men doing the work that had to be done.” 

Mac was especially impressed when Army Chief of Staff James C. McConville, a four-star general, called Dixie forward and praised her, thanking her for her service in front of the entire group.

Another spot in Arlington Cemetery provided the group with yet another touching moment. The Honor Flight veterans are, of course, taken to the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to witness the unforgettable “Changing of the Guard.” 

Each of the guardians, as well as Dixie, said what they saw was awesome. During the group’s time at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there was a Laying of a Wreath ceremony. In such a ceremony, there is a military honor guard. A Boy Scout troop from New Jersey was given the honor of laying a wreath at the Tomb. The veterans and guardians watched as four of the young Scouts joined with the honor guard to walk to the Tomb and place the wreath in a somber ceremony. 

As soon as the young boys had finished their duty and had rejoined their comrades in the crowd, one of the honor guard members approached the wreath that had just been placed and moved it to the side. Almost immediately, the Honor Guard, joined by two World War II veterans who were in wheelchairs, approached the sacred Tomb. The two elderly veterans, who had to be in their 90’s, were helped out of their wheelchairs. They stood and placed a wreath on the Tomb and saluted as “Taps” was played. There was not a dry eye in the crowd as the two “tough old guys” returned to their wheelchairs after doing their duty.

Because Dixie is a Vietnam veteran, having spent much time “in country” in the 1960’s, she was glad to have the opportunity to revisit the Vietnam War Memorial, most often called “the Wall.” According to Dixie, this was her first trip to see the Wall since the Wall that Heals visited Metter in 2017. 

“Being at the Wall,” she says, “was humbling.” She was glad to have the opportunity to help other Vietnam veterans who had not seen the Wall before find the names of their comrades who had been lost in Southeast Asia nearly 50 years ago. 

“I watched their reactions when they recognized and realized that the names of their friends are inscribed on the Wall forever,” she says.

Mac says he finds a visit to the Wall to always be interesting because he remembers the contrast between how he was welcomed home from Iraq and how the Vietnam vets were treated when they came home. 

“I was a kid in the 1960’s, so I saw how poorly soldiers were treated upon their return to the States. I hated how they were scorned,” he admits. When he returned from overseas in Iraqi Freedom, he received a hero’s welcome. 

He continues, “Soldiers are warriors with a duty – a job – to do.  All veterans should be honored despite the politics or public opinion of the time.” That is one of the reasons that Mac has acted as a guardian on five Honor Flights, and he is scheduled to go again in April 2020.

Elon and Jane Flack found the visit to the Wall to be a special time on this, their tenth Honor Flight. Each of the Flacks were guardians for Vietnam veterans. Elon escorted a sergeant from Claxton and Jane escorted an Army veteran from Savannah. Like the others, they find the stories told by those being honored to be interesting and inspiring. 

Because the mission of Honor Flight is to get as many World War II veterans to the World War II Memorial as possible, the group received special treatment at that special place. It was there that four Colonels came out to visit with the veterans, most of whom were enlisted men during their time in service. 

According to the Flacks, Carol McAlpine from The Savannah Morning News always has special visitors for the Honor Flight when they arrive at the WWII Memorial at 9 a.m. on Saturday of their weekend trip. 

“Six or eight generals and admirals, both active duty and retired, are there for a meet and greet with the Honor Flight,” explains Elon. 

The entire Honor Flight is lined up with those in wheelchairs on the front row. Generals and other high ranking military kneel beside those elderly vets while posing for a group picture. 

“The special greeters are always gracious and open to the veterans, and are so approachable that the veterans are amazed,” he continues. It is also at this memorial where there is mixed color guard representing all five branches of the military.

Nancy says that it was at the World War II Memorial that she saw Senator Bob Dole on the first two Honor Flights that she escorted. 

“Even in his wheelchair, he was there as long as he was physically able,” she recalls. Unfortunately, at the age of 96 and in frail health, Senator Dole is no longer able to greet the veterans.

As World War II veterans are all now in their 90’s, the Flacks, who have been involved with Honor Flight for almost 10 years, have seen the way the program operates change over the years. When Elon escorted his first veteran, Flem Cliett, in 2010, the group left Savannah on Friday evening and made the 10 to 12 hour bus ride overnight, trying to sleep on the bus. They veterans then spent the entire day Saturday touring the monuments before getting back on the bus for the overnight bus ride home. “The entire trip lasted only about 36 hours,” he says. 

Another time Elon flew with 50 veterans on an airplane trip. One time, the Honor Flight’s mode of travel was even by train on AMTRAK. Now, the trip has morphed into a weekend.

The Honor Flight veterans gather on Friday at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah since Savannah is the hub for Honor Flight Savannah. The honored veterans and guardians come from the area within a radius of about 100 miles from Savannah. 

When the veterans arrive and are boarding the bus for the journey, a crowd usually gathers to cheer on the veterans. They travel on toward Washington, DC, riding the bus all day, taking rest stops and breaks for meals along the way. Upon arrival in the nation’s capital, the group gathers for a meal and gets a good night’s rest at a DC area hotel. 

Saturday morning starts early with the gathering at the WWII Memorial at 9 a.m. For the rest of the day Saturday, the group moves from memorial to memorial, experiencing all manner of feelings dependent on each individual’s experience. The Flacks know this for sure after being on multiple Honor Flights. They say, “All trips are unique.”

At the end of the day of touring, the veterans and their guardians gather again for a meal and then retire to their rooms to get a good night’s sleep before boarding the bus on Sunday morning to travel back to Savannah. On this Honor Flight, the group lined up at a rest stop in South Carolina to make one final group photo on their way home. As the lineup formed, someone noticed an 18 wheeler in the background. That truck was adorned with a huge mural paying homage to the military and thanking veterans for their service. 

Nancy says she heard one of the men being honored by the Honor Flight say, “It’s a God thing!”

The beauty of the Honor Flight program is that the cost of this for veterans has already been paid by their service to their country. In other words, their way is paid by donations from people who wish to let veterans know how much their service is and has been appreciated. Each guardian pays his or her own way for the privilege of accompanying a veteran on an Honor Flight. The cost for each guardian is $500 per Honor Flight.

Nancy says, “The reward is worth the cost.” 

The Flacks feel that the veterans have already paid enough by their service. 

“We go about once a year,” says Elon, adding, “We are Honor Flight junkies!” Adds Mac, “I’ll keep on being a guardian as long as I can.”

Dixie, Metter’s favorite woman Vietnam veteran, is glad she finally gave in and agreed to participate in an Honor Flight. 

“I am so thankful to Larry and Marian Spears from Baxley who are in charge of Honor Flight Savannah,” she says. She adds that there is no way she can show her appreciation to those who made the trip so memorable. Among those are Lara Birdsong of Statesboro who was the group’s nurse, taking care of any medical needs; photographer Jerry Maennche from Effingham County who made photographs throughout the event, capturing the memories for everyone; and the guardians from Metter, Elon and Jane Flack and Mac Brown; and of course, her own personal guardian, Nancy Norton.

In order to show her thanks to Honor Flight Savannah and to help make the experience possible for other veterans, Dixie says she plans to make a donation to Honor Flight Savannah, and she will encourage others to do the same. 

Donations can be made to Honor Flight Savannah by mail at Honor Flight Savannah Inc., 1943 Spring Branch Church Road, Baxley, GA 31513 or by visiting the group’s website at www.honorflightsavannah.org

 

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