PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The day began early, just an hour after midnight, but a sense of camaraderie already filled the Wickham Senior Center. Most everyone gathered were complete strangers, only having met once before, but already a brotherly bond could be seen forming as everyone joked with one another and exchanged pleasantries.
While Space Coast Honor Flight (SCHF) volunteers served coffee and refreshments, a couple dozen currently serving military personnel were scattered around exchanging stories with their predecessor’s in-arms. Each of the 25 veterans attending the day trip was easily spotted, proudly wearing their own, highly personalized, veteran ball cap. Most of which are adorned with various pins, ribbons, patches and service name or war in which they fought prominent at the front.
These Veterans would soon embark on an all-expense paid, emotion-provoking journey to the memorials in Washington D.C. Each of whom would be given the opportunity to pay their respects to fallen brothers and sisters, reminisce of younger years and exchange stories of their time in the military from long ago.
As I looked around, my eyes landed on a man with one of the most contagious smiles in the room. A silver-haired, slightly aged replica of the 920th Rescue Wing commander, Col. Kurt Matthews.
Precisely at that moment, Col. Matthews, incognito in his civilian attire, was returning to the table with coffee in hand for the veteran. He motioned me over and introduced me to him, his father, George Matthews, whose face and demeanor were absolutely jubilant. Instantly, I felt welcomed and as if I had known George for years. Each veteran is assigned a guardian escort to assist them and ensure their needs and safety are met at all times. Col. Matthews volunteered to be his father’s guardian escort on this Honor Flight.
I was eager to talk to George and listen to his experiences from Vietnam, a war I admittedly know little about. I wanted to know how he inspired his son to follow in his footsteps by joining the Air Force but that would wait until after our return from the day in D.C.
After the early morning introductions and ceremonies, we left the senior center. Greeting the veterans as they departed the building was the Patrick Air Force Base Honor Guard, ceremonial swords drawn for each veteran as they made their way to the bus, a symbol of the highest respect and honor.
When it was George’s turn to come through the gauntlet, his eyes were full of excitement. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and happiness for him and I couldn’t help but smile.
After a police and Patriot Riders motorcycle escort to the Orlando airport and an expedited airport security check, we were soon on our way. The day was planned from start to finish with scheduled stops at the Air Force, WWII, Vietnam, Korea, Iwo Jima and Women’s memorials. Additionally, the group would be taken to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watch a Changing of the Guard ceremony inside Arlington National Cemetery.
When I finally had time to chat with him, George explained that he had been to D.C. shortly after the Vietnam memorial wall was built in the 80’s, but he hadn’t seen the other memorials.
“When I was here, I only went to “The Wall” to honor my brother and brothers-in-arms,” he said.
George’s Air Force career began in 1955 as an aviation cadet and received his wings and commission in 1956. Unfortunately, a few years later tragedy struck the Matthews family. His younger brother, Marine Corps Private First Class Aitken “Kenny” Matthews, was killed in combat in Vietnam on Feb. 14, 1966.
“When I was notified that he had been killed, my thoughts were with my mom and dad,” he said. “I ended up in contact with the Marines, thinking that if I could be the one to bring him home maybe that would help ease the pain my mother and father felt.”
As it would turn out, George would end up being given his wish as the escort officer to bring his brother home from California and preside over the military interment service.
“The Marines who folded the flag passed it to me as the escort officer," he explained. "That was the toughest part of the ceremony, presenting the flag to my mother.”
Only three months after laying his brother to rest, George received orders to Vietnam where he would be piloting fighter-bomber missions in the A-26 Invader. His mission: to stop war supplies being transported along the Ho Chi Minh trail. He flew at night because trucks transporting supplies could not operate during daylight hours as they were easily detected by fighter-bomber assaults.
“Throughout my time there, we lost 10 great guys,” George said. “We’d be flying, destroying the truck convoys but also trying to avoid being shot down ourselves. So many good friends were killed in action.”
George’s Vietnam deployment lasted nearly a year, spanning from Dec. 1966 through Oct. 1967.
On the one-year anniversary of the death of his brother, George revealed that he scheduled himself to fly two missions as a way to honor his late brother. Regulations prohibited no more than one mission per night, per aircrew.
“Being able to fly twice that day gave me a chance to honor him,” George said. “My thoughts were of him throughout the entire mission.”
When the Honor Flight group made its way to the Vietnam Memorial Wall, George pulled out a small piece of laminated paper, a list of his friend’s names and locations where they’re etched into "The Wall."
Methodically, George begins to search for his brothers’ names. It’s apparent when his eyes land upon one of the names as he reaches towards the wall, his fingers run along each letter of the name. He says something aloud, but to himself. I take a step closer and hear that he’s saying hello and thanking each man by name for their sacrifice. Somberly, he remarks how he wishes he could see them again before rendering a sharp salute to each panel with the name of a fallen brother on it.
“This has meant everything to me,” he said to me as we make our way to the bus. “What helped me get through the emotions of today is something General George Patton said; ‘It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should Thank God that such men lived.’”
When I finally asked his son and guardian-for-the-day if his father’s service had inspired him, Col. Matthews had a quick reply.
“Yes, I wanted to follow in his footsteps as an Air Force pilot and carry on a family tradition of service,” he said. “Plus, flying seemed like a lot of fun, so I couldn’t imagine doing anything else!"
Since the inception of SCHF in 2010, the nonprofit has flown 1,350 WWII, Korean War, and Vietnam War Veterans on 53 flights to visit their memorials on the all-expense-paid day trip to D.C. Each SCHF trip includes 25 Veterans, 25 Guardian Escorts, and six staff members. SCHF is supported by donations from individuals, businesses, and fundraisers with 97+% of every dollar received by SCHF going directly to the program. The SCHF board and support staff is 100% comprised of volunteers who selflessly dedicate their time to ensuring every trip is a success.
This trip was no different.
Merriam-Webster defines honor as something regarded as a rare opportunity, bringing pride and pleasure; a privilege. The experience of those in attendance would tell you it was their honor to be there. I can tell you, it was most assuredly my honor to be amongst this group of extraordinary men.
If you or someone you know is a WWII, Korean War, Vietnam or veteran of any recent conflict more information can be found at www.spacecoasthonorflight.org, requested by phone: 1-888-750-2522, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.