The sounds of war are buried here at our National Cemetery with more than 300 thousand stones quietly guarding the remains of a soldier. But perhaps the best known memorial to those killed in service Is the Tomb of the Unknown. Since 1921, the Changing of the Guard has been a ritual every hour of every day... witnessed on this day by our veterans.
"Remain silent and standing, "the guard calls to the crowd of onlookers as two other guards approach with a wreath. This wreath has a blue banner across the front acknowledging that it will be presented by the South Plains Honor Flight. Remember Gene Heath, the mechanic who worked on the Enola Gay? He led the procession. Another veteran behind him, Edward Kostelich, was a Pearl Harbor survivor. Also, walking with Kostelich was Lubbock Mayor Glen Robertson. After the ceremony, Kostelich described the moment. "It was a privilege and a great honor." Mayor Glen Robertson agreed, saying "It was an amazing experience I will never forget." There was one other person in that group presenting the wreath, Nikkie Gage. He, too, is a veteran, but the youngest one on our flight at just 66 years old. His reason for being here will later become obvious. As our group left the Tomb of the Unknown, Heath said with tears in his eyes, "There's not anything that can top this… other than getting to heaven."
That's the mission of the South Plains Honor Flight... to give the greatest generation the greatest experience in the home stretch of life. And who better to thank them for their service than our Congressman? So we made the picture postcard walk to the Capitol for a tour of the House Chambers and a personal meeting with Lubbock Congressman Randy Neugebauer who thanked each veteran for their service and gave them each a souvenir coin from the Capitol.
A longer and more emotional walk came later that day. You could hear the bagpipes as the veterans lined up in formation and marched to the Korean War memorial. Nineteen statues in windblown ponchos depict the trek through Korea's rugged terrain. Colonel Ken Hite (85) served in the Air Force in Korea. He says, "I flew 90 combat missions and shot down 1 mig-15 in aerial combat." Then, looking at the statues, he said, "One of the reasons I made this trip is to see that. It's impressive."
For others, the most heart-wrenching moment was yet to come. Beyond the Lincoln memorial and down the hill, Dominic Tartaglione finally sat. His caretaker explained, "He's been in a wheelchair most of the tour but he insisted on walking down here to honor his comrades." You could hear the bagpipes playing Amazing Grace as he added that the 91 year old was a foot soldier in wwII and 30 years later, volunteered to serve in Vietnam.
Remember Nikki Gage? He also served in Vietnam, which is why he and Dominic stood side by side carrying another wreath, this time honoring the 58 thousand names of the dead or missing from the Vietnam war, all etched in the wall beside them. Nikkie said in tears, "I counted 54 names on this wall that I personally witnessed giving their lives to this country. Out of the 54, 7 of them died in my arms."
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a sacred place to find the name of a missing loved one and plant a flag on that spot in the wall in honor of their service. Fred Harvey (77), who served in the Navy in Korea, found the name of one of his students on that wall. He says the high school student graduated to become a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. "Daniel Wayne Thomas", he says as he reads the name. "He was shot down. He was missing in action. They have never been able to recover the remains."
In all, 58 thousand reasons for this Vietnam veteran to get up from his wheelchair… and walk. "I'd crawl if I had to", he said. "It's worth it to me. My heart's in it."
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