( This column appeared in papers around the country three years ago.  We should never forget the sacrifices they and our other veterans have made to keep America free. )

Sometimes, when you least expect it, something happens that makes you realize how lucky we are to live in this country. One of those things happened to us on our way to our annual visit to Spring Training baseball in Arizona this past March.

We had left our home in Maine on Wednesday and driven to the airport in Providence, Rhode Island where we stayed overnight to be ready for our morning flight the next day. Looking forward to our next two weeks of beautiful weather and baseball, we already felt lucky.

We flew from Providence to Baltimore from where we would fly directly to Phoenix. We had a two hour layover in Baltimore and decided to have lunch in a pub at the airport near our gate. We were sitting there, again feeling like we were pretty lucky to be living the good life, when we heard the sound of people clapping and it sounded like the clapping was coming from down the concourse but moving closer to us.

As we sat there, the applause kept getting louder and closer and closer and we realized that the applause was for a group of people moving down the concourse toward our gate. It was a group of World War Two veterans and their escorts who were making their way to their plane back to the Phoenix area after visiting the World War II Memorial in Washington as part of a trip to honor them for their service to their country. The trip was sponsored by Honor Flight Arizona, one of the many organizations throughout the country dedicated to recognizing their heroism and sacrifice in this manner.

The group of thirty veterans ranged in age from 88 to 97 and were escorted by family and volunteers from the Phoenix area and the Washington D. C area. They had been honored at a ceremony in Washington and had visited the War Memorial, Fort McHenry in Baltimore where the Star Spangled Banner was written and other military and tourist sites in Washington,

They ranged from people walking on their own to frail veterans in wheelchairs being pushed by others. They acknowledged the applause and cheering with salutes, interestingly enough they were saluting us while we were trying to salute them. It was obvious that they enjoyed and appreciated the recognition,

The group was on our flight and filled the front section of the plane. Because of their wheelchairs, they were slow in boarding but I have never seen people in an airport more patient with a delay. As people boarded the plane it seemed as if everyone wanted to talk to these heroes.

Once everyone was on the plane and en route to Phoenix, the pilot and staff acknowledged their presence and the entire plane full of people sang God Bless America. They also held a mail call. One man and woman in the group had actually met while both were serving in the Phillipines during the war and they had been married over 68 years.

With all the negativity in this country today, including the negative press about our own country, the sight of these veterans who made trips like the one my wife and I were embarking on possible by their unselfish sacrifice, reminds us of just how lucky we are to live in the Land of the Free. I felt proud to be on a plane full of people who obviously recognize the debt we owe to these heroes and grateful to have had the opportunity to be part of a small gesture to recognize that debt.

I am further honored that, after I showed this column to the Coordinator of the Honor Flight, he read the article to the Honored Veterans and the other passengers on the plane, while flying 30,000 feet above middle America to further honor these great Americans. He had asked me to read the article myself and I declined, not because I did not want to read it but because this was such an emotional experience for me that I doubted my ability to maintain my composure if I tried to read it to these great men.

When we arrived in SkyHarbor Airport in Phoenix, our plane was met by hundreds of flag waving, cheering people of all ages, including civilians, military personnel and other veterans, lined up throughout the route the veterans would take through the airport. A fitting tribute to these and so many thousands of other veterans who made the freedoms we take for granted possible.

Every day there are fewer and fewer of these people we owe so much to left. All Americans should take the time to consider what our lives would be like today had these men not put their lives on the line for us and preserved the way of life that we take for granted.

Carl H. Johnson

March 20, 2014


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