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Bar News - November 13, 2009

Honor Flight New England – Vets Visit World War II Memorial


Tracy Culberson
It was 5:30 on a chilly, fog-filled autumn morning. I stood in the rain-soaked parking lot of the veterans’ hospital in Manchester and quietly watched as 21 World War II veterans carefully and deliberately boarded a bus. They were part of Honor Flight New England, a New Hampshire-based non-profit organization that takes World War II veterans on a cost-free visit to the World War II memorial in Washington D.C.

It was on that bus that I met Joe for the first time.

It was strange at first. I didn’t know Joe and he didn’t know me. All I knew was that, as his guardian for that day, I was responsible for meeting every single one of his needs. I was to be his shadow…physically and metaphorically. I had the distinct honor of being there to push his wheelchair, open his bottles of water, take photos, and most importantly…to be on the receiving end of the most meaningful history lesson that I have ever received.

Joe was a Seabee during "the war." When he was dropped off on the Pacific island of Tinian five miles southwest of its sister island Saipan, he was a young man with a high school sweetheart that he would eventually marry. The Seabees comprised the construction battalions of the US Navy. As a Seabee, Joe was responsible for building and maintaining the airstrip on Tinian, which would eventually be used as the home base and launching pad for the Enola Gay.

In August 1945 the Enola Gay left Tinian to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Joe told me that as he watched that historic day, he and his buddies thought the plane was so heavy that it was going to crash into the ocean. "Slowly but surely" Joe said, "it started to climb and then it disappeared." When I asked if he had known what was inside the plane that day, he said, "Of course…we all knew."

A Momentous Trip

The veterans were like a bunch of school kids heading out of town on a field trip. As they would soon discover, this was just the beginning of "their day…their tribute." Everywhere they went they were greeted as the heroes that they were. Sixty years of pomp and circumstance held in reserve surfaced that day in the cheers and applause of those who came out to send them off on a whirlwind adventure that would challenge the patience and drain the energy of men and women half their age.

We flew to Baltimore and as we deplaned, hundreds of active military members stood in line to salute and shake the hands of our honored veterans. Travelers from other flights who happened to be in the right place at the right time, stood and applauded. A man in his forties walked up to Joe, shook his hand and said thank you. It was a simple gesture, but one that surely meant just as much to Joe as it did to that man.

We arrived at the World War II Memorial at about the same time as several other Honor Flights from across the country did. I settled Joe down into his wheelchair and told him that I would take him wherever he wanted to go. We first posed for a group photo with Bob and Elizabeth Dole. The former Senator and World War II veteran makes it a point to greet each Honor Flight to share camaraderie and fellowship with his fellow servicemen and women. Senator Dole is quick with a joke and generous with his time. Everyone is thanked…everyone is appreciated.

A Meaningful Day

The only way to truly understand what happened that day is to reflect upon it. The experience, as it unfolded, was very powerful – and in the aftermath, my thoughts turn outward. How can we, as a nation, regain the sense of duty, obligation and sacrifice that people like Joe understood over half a century ago? How does a nation of people, conceived in liberty, remind itself that democracy, freedom, and patriotism are not mere colloquialisms or elusive concepts – that they are in the core of our beings, that they are tangibles…paid for by men and women who went to war…paid for by the families of those who never returned…paid for by those who understand that freedom isn’t free.

Justice Souter reminded us recently of the need for a comprehensive civics curriculum in our schools, but let’s not forget that it isn’t so much that we are lacking in the basic knowledge of how our government works…it’s that we lack the basic understanding of duty, inalienable rights, and sacrifice. Any lesson in civics must stress an understanding and appreciation of the rights and duties of citizens. To most, "duty" is something to be skirted by those who joke about the lies they have told to avoid being inconvenienced by jury duty. To others, "sacrifice" means going without the latest iPhone…and "rights"…well, those are just those things that the police violate all the time.

For those who don’t "get it," here’s a slice of insight that I gleaned from listening to two old war horses sharing a conversation on the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery: everything that we enjoy…from our houses, to our jobs, to our fancy cars, to the Saturday morning soccer games, to the money in our pockets, was earned. They are ours, not because of entitlement or accident…but because of duty and sacrifice. Better men and women than we fought to preserve everything upon which we place value. We need to understand that. We need to teach that.

Some Americans "get it." They understand that the freedom and liberties that we enjoy as Americans are gifts, handed down to us by generations of men and women who understood the meaning of duty and sacrifice. And when someone gives you such a cherished gift, you take a deep breath, swallow the lump in your throat and say "thank you."

On Sept. 26, 2009, I got the chance to do just that. Thank you, Joe.

Assistant Attorney General Tracy M. Culberson is with the Elder Abuse and Financial Exploitation Unit at the Office of the NH Attorney General in Concord. He is a member of the board of directors for Honor Flight New England.

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