My Word: A Day to Remember

An older man wearing a blue Vietnam veteran hat and jacket poses with a red-headed woman in a red Honor Flight Network shirt in front of a green and black memorial statue of three Vietnam soldiers.

By Pat Cary, as told to Samantha Gassman

Leaving for a vacation in 2017, I saw an Honor Flight arrive at Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI). For those visiting a Washington, D.C.-area airport, this is a common sight: groups of volunteers welcoming World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans to the terminal before embarking on visits to memorials in the nation’s capital. Honor Flight Network, which hosts these visits, has a mission of gratitude, and recognizes the service, sacrifice and selflessness of veterans by honoring them with a free-of-charge trip to Washington.

The volunteers created such a welcoming atmosphere that I reached out to the network upon my return home and became part of Honor Flight Network’s BWI ground crew. As part of the ground crew, I supported activities at the airport — greeting flights, coordinating airport gate access passes for volunteers and wrangling wheelchairs, meals and more — until I got a call early one Saturday morning in April 2018.

Memories and Memorials

A coordinator from the Columbus, Ohio, chapter needed volunteers to support an incoming flight of veterans on their “mission,” the term given to Honor Flight tours. I raised my hand to volunteer, jumped on the tour bus and spent the day with two Vietnam veterans who had never been to Washington.

When we arrived at the Vietnam War Memorial, we took our time. I followed their emotional lead. We visited their friends on the wall, and I asked the docent to help with rubbings — the process of using a pencil and paper to create copies of the recessed lettering etched into the memorial — so they could take the names from the wall home with them. We discussed the places they served, some of what they saw and, most of all, how they were feeling now.

When we arrived back at BWI, I asked how they felt about the day. Both veterans were adamant that it was overwhelming. The greeting, the welcome, the thanks for their service and the continued goodwill were totally different from how they felt when they arrived home from Vietnam. They had tears in their eyes as we said goodbye at the gate.

A few weeks later, I made photobooks from the pictures I had captured during their trip and mailed one to each veteran. We keep in touch several times during the year, and I consider them lifelong friends.

Going Above and Beyond

Since that first experience, I have been on more than 50 missions, supporting veterans arriving from six U.S. cities. I have also become close to the Columbus Honor Flight chapter and support them on missions each year. I travel to their annual reunion to catch up with all the veterans for whom I have been a guardian.

The goal is to make the day special for each veteran. For many veterans, it is the first time they’ve been to Washington and it's my responsibility to make sure their day is one they'll never forget. For me, I have the honor of stepping back in time to the moments, the stories and the emotions of our nation’s veterans, who bring history alive when they share their hearts with me.

Learn about Northrop Grumman’s VERITAS (Veterans, Employees and Reservists Inspired to Act and Serve) employee resource group, and read more about life at Northrop Grumman.

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