Ninety-three veterans of World War II and the Korea and Vietnam wars recently took part in a whirlwind, all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. to see the various memorials that pepper the city in honor of those who fought in the wars.
Among those veterans on the trip were Pagosans Robert Hawley and Will Cotton, both WWII veterans.
Hawley administered first aid in the Army between October 1942 and November 1945, serving in the Pacific Theatre, including in Japan.
Cotton served in the Army Air Force and was in the midst of advanced pilot training when the war began to taper off.
The flight, the final Western Slope Honor Flight, departed Grand Junction on Sept. 21, returning 37 hours later on Sept. 22.
Each veteran on the trip was accompanied by a guardian. Hawley was accompanied by his daughter, Brenda Eaves, while Cotton was accompanied by his son, Rick Cotton.
Eaves and Rick Cotton took notes of the happenings throughout the trip, noting everything from the Girl Scout cookies served on the flight to the 21-step segments taken in guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
According to the notes, the Honor Flight attendees first went to the monument depicting the second flag raising at Iwo Jima, then watched the changing of the guard at Arlington Cemetery, followed by a visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The next day, the veterans and guardians heard Rep. Scott Tipton and Sen. Michael Bennet speak, and were escorted by the president’s police escort to the World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and the Korean and Vietnam memorials. Other memorials visited include the newly-finished Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and Franklin Roosevelt and Navy memorials.
The group also visited the National Archives, the Supreme Court building and Department of Justice building.
“It was an unbelievable experience, it was,” Eaves said of the opportunity to accompany her father on the trip. “I saw the war, kind of, through his eyes.”
Eaves said she spent a lot of time sitting and talking with her dad throughout the trip as the various memorials visited triggered memories, including memories of specific individuals Hawley treated during the war.
Rick Cotton said accompanying his father on the trip allowed him to see the challenges the aging veterans are facing (for example, hearing and memory problems) and to talk with other veterans’ children in attendance about caring for their parents.
Despite the number of monuments and locations visited, the elder Cotton said, as a former pilot, he was most impressed with the flight itself, though it was interesting seeing the finished World War II Memorial, which he had seen plans for when he worked as a Navy engineer decades ago.
“The thing that impressed me the most was the cabin attendants and the pilot, who was able to control that airplane with such talent,” Cotton said, calling the flight “smooth as silk.”
Rick Cotton said the veterans were treated like kings on the flight, with an ample amount of food provided, the ability to walk around the plane and the smoothness of the flight.
“It was definitely an honor flight,” Eaves said.
One of the most emotional points in the journey for the veterans and families alike was the reception upon their return to Grand Junction.
An estimated crowd of about 1,000 people waited at the airport in Grand Junction for the veterans to return, much of the crowd clad in red, white and blue.
Will Cotton remembered young children handing presents to the veterans, as well as a bagpiper and the crowd.
“That was utterly amazing,” Eaves said, adding that she couldn’t help but cry as she carried luggage away from the plane. “If they remember, it’s worth it.”
Honor Flight is a non-profit organization that runs on donations. Between the years of 2005 and 2010, more than 63,000 veterans were transported to Washington to see the memorials dedicated to them and to the wars in which they served.