In 1952, Walt Hendrix returned to his home in Northern California by way of Seattle after serving on the ground in the Korean War. But unlike with the conquering heroes in the aftermath of World War II, there was no public welcoming committee to greet him.
“Like so many from that time, he just went back to his life,” says his nephew Steve Dodge who, for more than 30 years, has worked as a warehouseperson at the Toyota Parts Distribution Center in San Francisco.
It took nearly seven decades, but that wrong was finally set right.
In September, Dodge joined his Uncle Walt on an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., organized and hosted by the Honor Flight Network. The nonprofit’s mission: to make it possible for aging war veterans to see and experience the memorials at our nation’s capital and, along the way, to receive the acknowledgement, thanks and closure they so richly deserve.
When his now 90-year-old uncle’s name was selected to make the trip, Dodge admits he wasn’t exactly looking forward to serving as an escort for “a bunch of grouchy old men.” But before the chartered flight even left the ground at San Francisco International Airport, Dodge realized he had it all wrong.
Red Carpet Treatment
“I’ve flown a lot, but I’ve never been on a plane that was so loud and so much fun in all my life,” he says. “These guys were all up and mingling with one another. It was so cool to see the fellowship among them. It really was awesome just to be in their presence.”
Actually, the party started before that. Dodge says representatives from the USO and Veterans of Foreign Wars, along with fire fighters and police officers, set up a reception line to greet the 25 war veterans and their guardians as they made their way to the gate. A similar welcome, complete with fire trucks staging a water gun salute, awaited them on the other end of their flight at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
“There were hundreds of people there,” says Dodge. “Everyone stopped what they were doing and applauded for these guys and thanked them for their service. It just kept going on and on.”
Over the next two days, the veterans — Hendrix’s group as well as several others from around the country — maintained a breakneck pace, rising at 5:30 a.m., taking VIP tours of the memorials by day, having dinner at 7 p.m. and staying up and reminiscing until 11.
To help them stay on schedule, their buses received a police escort from one destination to the next — a rarity in Washington. And every veteran was provided with a wheelchair, if they needed one.
While Dodge says his uncle enjoyed the planned activities, it was the unexpected encounters that really made the trip special.
“When we were at the Lincoln Memorial, there were some Korean nationals there who saw my uncle and wanted to get pictures with him,” says Dodge. “And then, when we were at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, a woman came up to us who said her father was still living in Korea, thanks in part to people like my uncle. She thanked him for his service and told him she probably wouldn’t have become a doctor if it weren’t for what he and others like him did. That was just amazing.”
The celebration continued on the flight home, with the pilot buying a round of drinks for everyone on the plane. And when Dodge and Hendrix emerged from the jetway at SFO, they were greeted by family and friends who were given gate passes rather than have to wait on the other side of airport security.
Through it all, Dodge — who did a stint in the Persian Gulf with the Navy before joining Toyota — says he gained a much deeper appreciation for the sacrifices made by previous generations. In addition to his uncle, Dodge’s father served in the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And his grandfather served during World War II. Before the trip, Dodge’s uncle hardly talked about his time in Korea.
“He’s not an extrovert,” he says. “I’d be talking to someone and then others would come up and talk with him and draw things out of him. It was really good to see him get out from the four walls of his home and reconnect with his peers. There was so much they could talk about, even if they were from different branches of the military.”
You Can Help, Too
Dodge and Hendrix were among the lucky veterans who were granted a trip of a lifetime. The Honors Flight Network relies on donations to underwrite the cost, which means they can’t accommodate everyone who wants to go — at least not right away. To learn how you can help, check out their website
Meanwhile, consider joining the Toyota Veterans Association – the company’s business partnering group comprised of veterans as well as team members who wish to support those who have served. You can learn more here
What better way to commemorate Veterans Day and honor those who served to preserve our freedoms?
By Dan Miller