SPECIAL REPORT | Honor flight shows Kentucky veterans 'how great - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SPECIAL REPORT | Honor flight shows Kentucky veterans 'how great our country is'

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Bill Carr touches the Korean War memorial during his visit June 7 (Photo by Beth Peak, WDRB News) Bill Carr touches the Korean War memorial during his visit June 7 (Photo by Beth Peak, WDRB News)
The honor flight veterans outside the World War II veterans on June 7, 2016 (Photo by Beth Peak, WDRB News) The honor flight veterans outside the World War II veterans on June 7, 2016 (Photo by Beth Peak, WDRB News)

Editor's Note: WDRB's Lindsay Allen and Beth Peak traveled to Washington, D.C. on June 7 to bring you their original story about Honor Flight Kentucky's journey from Louisville to visit four war memorials and to pay their respects to those buried at Arlington National Cemetery. This three-piece special report reflects on the lives of the veterans aboard that flight -- and what they want all Americans to remember.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WDRB) -- It was a crisp, cool June morning when Bill Montfort arrived at the Louisville International Airport and boarded a chartered airplane headed for a day-long journey to the nation's capital.

But this would be no ordinary trip for Montfort, a World War II veteran, and nearly 80 other veterans taking part in this honor flight. They each have their own story and thanks to the Honor Flight Bluegrass Chapter, this is their day to reflect on their service at the places built to honor them.

"I thought I was going into the war to shoot guns and so forth but they seen a need for me to be a medic so I went to school for three months," recalls Montfort, a Louisville native. "I took a course on how to patch people up and that's what I did."

Their flight arrived at Reagan National Airport around 7 a.m. and as they were walked or wheeled off the airplane, they were greeted with patriotic music and lots of cheers and celebration. While the music was planned, the crowd that gathered at Gate 38 were random airport travelers who had been waiting at nearby gates and got wind of what was going on.

For about five minutes, the travelers put away their laptops and phones and extend a hand, or in some cases a hug. And for a brief moment, strangers become friends.

"Thank you for your service!" one woman yells.

Knowing how little precious time is left for many of these veterans, the Honor Flight organization has a mission to fulfill the dreams of those who served World War II, Korea and Vietnam. 

Within moments of leaving Reagan National Airport, the veterans board a charter bus and head to the heart of Washington, D.C. -- three war memorials and a trip to the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.

World War II Memorial

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 640 World War II veterans die each day -- and it's estimated there won't be a single World War II veteran left to tell their story within the next 20 years.

The World War II memorial  in D.C. sits on Independence Avenue and as the wheelchairs roll in, so do the memories. Of the 80 veterans on this honor flight, half of them served in World War II.

Montfort served in France and Germany and his loved ones say he rarely talks about the war. 

"He served in a MASH tent in Germany and he said morphine had just come out and that was the only relief he could give some of the wounded soldiers was a morphine shot and then he'd pray with them," says Chris Benson, an honor flight guardian.

Montfort, wearing a gray T-shirt and a black World War II baseball cap, recalls:

"That's where the Lord put me for some reason or another," he said.

Photographs show us how Montfort's life took shape after the war. He returned to Kentucky in 1945, got married and his first son Fred was born in 1946. 

He went on to work as a foreman for L & R Railroad and as a track teller at Churchill Downs to earn extra cash on the weekends to support his family.

It's a story shared by so many of these men -- trying to return to normalcy after the scenes they witnessed in war.

Ed Maloney Jr. had just graduated St. Xavier High School enlisted in the U.S. Army on Dec. 8, 1941 -- one day after Pearl Harbor.

He served in the Philippines near the end of the war; his wife also played an important role by serving in the Army Nurse Cadet corps.

"The idea was when she graduated from the nursing program she would go and relieve nurses in the states so they could go overseas but the war ended before she graduated," said Ed Maloney III, their son. 

When asked what he wants people to remember about that time in history, Maloney Jr. replies: "We did what we had to at the time. No question about it."

Wayne Hayes was a crewman in a B-29 bomber and was based in Siapan, but as he recalls, "We flew to Japan and did our dirty work there."

For some, talking about those memories takes them to a place of sadness and grief.

Vincent Gramarossa was only 17 when he arrived to fight in the war.

"A lot of my buddies passed away and died," he says, breaking down into tears.

The World War II Memorial honors the 16 million Americans who served in the U.S. armed forces and the 400,000 who died fighting.

When asked why their generation is referred to as the "Greatest Generation," these Kentucky veterans offered their thoughts.

"We knew what we were doing," Gramarossa says. "We fought for something that was right."

Hayes says "everybody did a part."

"It wasn't just people on the front lines," he said. "Back home they really suffered, didn't have things and what they did have they were willing to share. So it was a great generation because everybody pitched in."

Korean War Memorial

The entire nation celebrated the end of World War II in 1945 and service members were welcomed home as heroes as the Allied forces triumphed over the Axis forces of Germany, Italy and Japan.

But for future generations of soldiers, the reception home would be far less warm. It's something many Korean War and Vietnam veterans haven't been able to forgive and a wound that Honor Flight organizers are trying heal in their own way, decades later. 

"This memorial affected me more than any other," says Hayes, the World War II veteran of the Korean War Memorial. "These guys out here just look like they're so tired, like they can't take another step."

It was cold and miserable, says Ken Powers, a Korean War veteran.

"Cold. Freezing cold," he recalls. "But I survived so, I'm here, all I had was bruises and bumps."

Powers tried to enlist when he was 15, before he was allowed to. He finally did enlist legally just two years later.

"I fired my first round at the enemy when I was 17," he said.

Powers remained on the front lines for all but three days that he was there.

The war was about pushing back Communism. It lasted from 1950 to 1953 and pitted the U.S. backed South Korea against the Soviet Union and Chinese backed North Korea.

"It was the first step in stopping Communist aggression and that's why we were in Korea," says Bill Carr, another Korean War veteran.

This visit is the first time Carr has seen the memorial to the war he fought in person. 

"It brings back emotional feelings no doubt about it," he said moments after touching the memorial’s wall. "I guess I could say 38,000 of my brothers didn't come back, okay?  I don't know how else to say it but that's what it meant."

Etched in the wall, just a few words that read "Freedom is not Free"

"It just means so much that someone cared enough to do this," Powers said. "Because the homecoming we got, we was the forgotten war. One guy would say, 'Hey Ken, where you been?'"

Carr recalls much of the same.

"Even for the Korean boys, we had lost our touch with our service people," he said. "People were doing their own thing in their own lives and they forget we had a lot of people fighting in a different theater for their benefit for their freedoms."

Vietnam War Memorial

For Larry Burton, this was his third time visiting the Vietnam War Memorial -- a wall bearing the names of 58,286 Americans.

"I was in the infantry," Burton said. "You're a paratrooper and you're supposed to be the elite and it seemed like they send you to the worst places."

"Larry saw a lot of combat," Carr says.

Burton was wounded July 22, 1968. He remembers the horror with vivid detail.

"A little village outside Cu Chi, it's called Trang Bang," Burton recalls. "We walked into a regiment of North Vietnamese. There were 10 killed in action and 24 of us wounded that day."

The horror of war would follow him back to the United States in a heartbreaking return.

"I got back from Vietnam and I had my stripes, I had a chest full of medals, I was proud," Burton says.

"We landed there in San Francisco and I thought there was going to be a welcome home party. The police was out there, protesters...they had it roped off so they couldn't spit on you," Burton emotionally recalls. "It was rough."

Burton says it was a "hard to pill to swallow."

"Today's a day I never thought I'd see," he said. "This whole honor flight, being here at the wall. It's funny there was so much controversy, this was a 'bad' memorial. I think of all the memorials this is the best one."

It was a complicated time, with U.S. Service members caught in the middle. 

"In a political war, we were not political," Carr says.

"We done our patriotic duty," Burton says in tears.

Arlington National Cemetery

It's the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

The monument is dedicated to American service members who have been killed in action, their remains unidentified. 

Graves -- 400,000 of them -- fill the cemetery as far as the eye can see. All in military precision.

It's no accident that one of the most somber places in America is one of the final places this group of veterans visits. 

"It means how great our country is," says Marvin Kelly, a Korean War veteran. "That we've had these men that served our country and gave their lives for it."

In talking about the complications of war, Kelly says he doesn't "know what we accomplished over there when we lost so many men."

"It's still going on essentially with men walking the 38th parallel," he said. "It's very complicated."

Yet still, a time to pay respect.

"It's beautiful but you think about how many men died for our country," Kelly says, pausing. "This honor flight is great."

So far, more than 159,000 veterans have been given the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. on honor flights.

The first flight took off in May 2005 from Springfield, Ohio with 12 World War II veterans on board. From there, the network has grown with air hubs in 130 cities, including Louisville. 

The mission is very simple -- accommodate as many veterans as possible, showing them that Americans care and want to honor them for their service. And maybe more importantly, provide them with closure.

"My father was in World War II, he taught navigation and then he flew airplanes all over the place," says Doug Foster, the director of Honor Flight Bluegrass. "I do it to honor him. I'm a veteran myself. I love being with these guys. The stories I can tell you are just fantastic."

The veterans come to D.C. paired with a loved one or volunteer.

Honor flights from Kentucky have been offered to veterans since 2008. They are funded solely through donations. 

"The veterans fly for free, it's donations, it's absolutely donations," Foster said. "We do some fundraisers, but there are absolutely so many generous and wonderful people that donate their money to us."

Another honor flight of the Bluegrass is scheduled for September and there are about 250 Kentucky veterans on a waiting list.

Veterans who want to go on future flights, and people who want to help fund those trips can visit the Honor Flight Bluegrass chapter website.

As we celebrate our nation's Independence Day, we leave you with the words inscribed on the Korean War Memorial, "Freedom is not Free".

It is our honor to tell the stories of the men and women who have defended and fought for our county.

From all of us here at WDRB News, Happy 4th of July.    

Copyright 2016 WDRB News. All rights reserved. 

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