Memorials and memories, Oklahoma veterans honored on inaugural flight

More than 70 Oklahoma veterans on the Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight pose for a picture outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery (Phil Cross/KOKH)

They gather on the steps leading to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Represented in the group of more than 70 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are those who served in the nation’s great conflicts from World War II to Korea to Vietnam.

RELATED: Oklahoma World War II veteran's life of service honored

As they take in the somber sights of Arlington National Cemetery, the former soldiers are not just paying their respects to the generations of warriors that preceded them; they are receiving the respect and thanks from nearly everyone they meet.

The men and women are all part of the inaugural Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight. The group is newly re-formed after unforeseen circumstances grounded an Oklahoma-based chapter of the Honor Flight program.

RELATED: Honor Flight gives the gift of gratitude

On this first flight are veterans like Ed Palomares, who volunteered to serve when he was just 17-years-old.

“I just decided it was time for me to do something that was good and not running around on the streets,” Palomares said, “So I joined the service."

Palomares now lives in Checotah and remembers well his service in both Korea and Vietnam. One of his first stops is to get a picture of the grave of Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated World War II combat veteran, who went on to be a hero of the silver screen.

Each stop has something special for the veterans. The Navy Memorial contains water from the very seas sailed and protected by the men and women who served in that branch of the Armed Forces.

RELATED: Oklahoma brothers shared service and honor

There is also a stop at the Air Force Memorial, with spires that reach to the sky. Michael Jones can point to the specific missions engraved on the walls of the memorial he was a part of. His job was to help make sure planes stayed in the sky.

“We'd sometimes have over a hundred on frequency going up north,” Jones recalled.

For others on the Honor Flight, it is not just the memorials that make the trip so special, it is the entire experience.

“I’ve been to all these places before, as more of a spectator and I feel...coming with a group, I feel more a participant,” said Navy Veteran Jerry McKnickle.

McKnickle served in the Navy during Vietnam, where he was assigned to SUBPAC, or the Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet.

“I served on the USS Perry out of San Diego, and then went to school at Great Lakes and was then transferred to Pearl Harbor,” McKnickle told FOX 25. “I worked on submarines, just about every submarine in the Pacific Ocean at one time.”

On any honor flight, each veteran has a guardian. The guardians are there to escort the veterans and provide assistance throughout the day.

Some guardians are family; - other guardians become family.

McKnickle’s guardian is FOX 25’s Jeff George.

They had never met before the flight, but it does not take long to realize they were not paired by accident.

Jeff's dad was also a Navy man, who served during Vietnam. His dad died a little over a year ago, but on this trip as he escorted a fellow sailor, his dad felt a little bit closer.

“I know he was with me today,” Jeff said, “You can feel it when you're at these memorials it is spiritual, you feel it you are a small part of something really big, really amazing.”

In addition to reflecting on service many veterans like McKnickle are sharing how their military service taught them skills that they were able to turn into life-long careers that supported their families.

“I think it will surprise you, a lot of people have come out of the service knowing what they will do for a living and probably changed their whole life,” McKnickle said.

It is another thing Jeff and Jerry have in common.

Jeff went from a military meteorologist to serving civilians as FOX 25's Chief Meteorologist. He is now back in the Oklahoma National Guard where he is continuing to forecast and serve pilots and soldiers with the National Guard.

Jeff, though, is just one of the dozens of volunteers helping make the day a once in a life time experience for these veterans. Many of the men and women on the trip never received a warm welcome home after their service.

Flight leader Wayne Perego knows that fact all too well. It is the reason he serves veterans through the Honor Flight program.

“It's a passion,” Perego tells FOX 25 as he coordinates activities aboard the chartered flight. “My dad was a Vietnam veteran and he was going on the first flight with me as the director and he passed away 10 days before the flight.

Each flight costs about $90,000 and all that money is raised through private donations and corporate sponsors. Perego says every penny counts and he means it. You can find out more on how you can donate by visiting the Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight website.

Perego said the trip to the nation’s capital is more than just a trip and is more than just a way to say thanks for the service of the veterans.

“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.

The final leg of the trip is the flight home. It is where “mail call” happens. In the days of e-mail, social media and instant messages, it is easy to forget the simplicity and beauty of a handwritten card or letter. During their time in the service, mail call was the lifeline to those they left behind.

Cruising 35,000 above the country they served, each veteran is given a package of cards and letters. Some of the letters are from family members. Others are cards from school children.

One little boy addressed cards to his “heroes,” and included his favorite super hero bandages inside.

The plane finally touches down at the Tulsa International Airport. It is one of the final flights to come in and the shops have long since closed. However, there is one last surprise waiting in the main lobby of the terminal.

A welcome home celebration.

“Here they come,” someone in the crowd yells as they see the veterans coming toward the security doors. The path is lined with flags and people holding signs. Some of those here to welcome home the flight are family members, others are members of the community who heard about the arrival and wanted to say their “thank you” in person.

“I've got a handshake to say welcome home and on behalf of a grateful nation thank you,” one member of the crowd says to every fellow service member he greets.

Describing the picture of the welcome home is the easy part, but finding the words to capture the experience of this welcome home leaves so many speechless.

Perhaps the words do exist to describe it all, but those words will have to wait.

Because the heroes are home.

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