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Community support crucial to Honor Flight's mission

Suzanne Rhodes • May 28, 2018 at 10:30 AM

“It’s a no-makeup weekend for me or any of the other women. I tell them, ‘You can't put your makeup on because you’ll lose every bit of it when you shake the hand of that veteran.’”

Edie Lowry is the executive director for Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee. On the weekend of April 27-29, she traveled from Johnson City with veterans of World War II and Korea to visit the war memorials in Washington, D.C. The trips, free for the veterans, “are for healing, to get these guys and gals to open up what’s been bottled up inside of them for 70 years,” Lowry said.

Northeast Tennessee is one of 132 hubs nationwide in the Honor Flight network and schedules two trips a year - the April one and another in October. The cost is $17,000, paid for by fundraisers, benefits, sponsorships and individual donations.

“If not for the community and the people that give the donations, these trips would never happen,” said Lowry, who moved from Missouri to Tennessee in February 2012 to take on the leadership position. “I always go on every trip,” she said.

Nineteen veterans, representing all military branches except the Coast Guard, took the spring trip. The oldest veteran was 96. They were accompanied by “guardians,” or companions - one a paramedic/EMT and two who were nurses. Not all Honor Flights are on airplanes. The Northeast Tennessee branch charters a bus. Leaving from Johnson City on April 27, the group traveled for six hours before arriving at a hotel in Fairfax, Virginia where they spent the night. Dinner was provided by American Legion Post 177. On Saturday, they took the bus to Washington and the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials.

“A lot of tears, a lot of emotions, a lot of sitting and staring,” Lowry said as she explained the impact on veterans when their buried memories of war and fallen friends were revived. “A lot of just wanting to be left alone so they can grasp what they’re thinking,” she said.

One especially poignant feature of the National World War II Memorial is the Freedom Wall. There, 4,048 gold stars are displayed, each representing 100 lives lost in that war. “It’s all very heart-wrenching, thinking of all the boys who died for us,” said Carl Pollard, a 92-year-old Navy air force veteran from Roanoke who shared quarters in the Philippines with prisoners who’d been liberated from camps in 1945. “They were walking skeletons,” he said. Pollard was an aviation machinist and flew on a PB4Y-2 bomber.

Edie Lowry was especially moved by her encounter with one World War II veteran, whose guardian had left. So, she wheeled him around in his wheelchair, going from one section to another of the memorial, which is located at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. “By the time we got ready to back to the bus, he wanted me to stop. He turned around and looked at me and says, ‘Edie, thank you.’

“And I said, ‘Honey, we’re here to say thank you to you.’ And he says, ‘No, I want you to know I have to say thank you. I feel peaceful. I can go back now to my bed and lay my head on the pillow and rest peacefully.”

At day’s end, the group headed back to the American Legion post in Fairfax for dinner and a closing ceremony. Lowry had arranged for two musicians to provide entertainment, with music from the World War II era. “You can push these veterans in wheelchairs all day long, but boy, when that music starts, they’re up there dancing the boogie woogie.

“You see them all day long on Saturday going through that stressful point of their lives and the remembrance of what they did.” With dinner and music, “they’re really letting loose and having a good time. And then they start talking.”

During the closing ceremony, the veterans speak about their weekend experiences. “When you hear them say, ‘It’s a journey of a lifetime,’ or, ‘I feel at peace,’ you know your job is well done,” Lowry said. “And then when they come home and talk to their wives or their children or grandchildren or anybody about their experience, your job’s well done.”

That’s the mission and miracle of Honor Flight.

To learn more about how you can support Honor Flight Northeast Tennessee, visit honorflightnetn.org/ to make a donation or call Edie Lowry at (423) 330-6189.

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