Honor Flight gives the gift of gratitude

(KOKH/Phil Cross)

The day began before dawn, but not a minute was wasted. It was a day of honor for Oklahoma’s heroes that began with a police escort to the airport where they would embark on an incredible journey.

As the veterans of the inaugural Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight walked off the plane in the nation’s capital, they were greeted by school children waving flags and holding homemade posters thanking them for their service.

“That was a surprise, it really was,” said Billy Given, a Vietnam Army veteran from McLoud who was on the flight, “I just wished it would have happened years ago when i came back from Vietnam.”

Many of Given’s fellow Vietnam veterans said when they returned from war, it was not to the thanks of a grateful nation. The honor flight is one way to correct that. From the airport greeting, to strangers coming up to them at memorials, it was a day of thanks.

Wayne Perego helped organize the Honor Flight, his dad was a Vietnam veteran who died just days before he was to go on his own flight. Perego carries on in his memory to support other veterans know they are not forgotten.

“Getting to see the smiles, getting to see the guys at the Vietnam wall a lot of them will go and they'll come and they'll cry and they get closure,” Perego said of the experiences he’s been a part of through Honor Flights.

“I've been to all these places before, as more of a spectator,” said Vietnam Navy Veteran Jerry McKnickle. This visit was different. This trip he was surrounded by fellow veterans; men and women who know what he went through and share the same experiences and memories. “I feel, coming with a group,” McKnickle said holding back the emotions you could see on every veteran’s face, “I feel more a participant.”

Each veteran has a guardian on the flight. The goal is to make sure they want for nothing and are well cared for during the day-long trip. McKnickle’s guardian is a man whose father also served in the Navy during Vietnam, FOX 25’s Jeff George.

“It's a real special trip, a real special day,” George said, “It is hard to put into words. I know that's what you want me to do but it is really hard to do when you have a veteran like Jerry next to me.”

There were surprises throughout the trip from visits from members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation to crowds turning out to say ‘welcome home.’

Givens, though, may have received the biggest surprise when he was greeted by a Cub Scout leader from Washington, D.C.

“I couldn't sleep last night and as I thought about it this morning it got me choked up,” said Jess Speaker, III about his planned surprise meeting with Given, “Because I know how much he has impacted my life.”

Speaker was one of Given’s Boy Scouts for Troop 477 in McLoud, Oklahoma. He knew his scout leader was a veteran, but only recently has learned more about his service. When he learned Givens would be on this Honor Flight, he made plans to intercept the tour.

“You can't ask for anything better and this is wonderful here wonderful,” Givens said holding back tears. It was emotional just to be on the trip and visit the memorials. It was even harder to remain composed seeing the boy he mentored, grown up and leading his own group of young men.

The program is called Honor Flights because they honor the veterans. In reality, the honor is also with those who donate their time and resources to make the trips happen. They are eyewitnesses to the great generations to served and sacrificed.

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