0

'They deserve to be thanked'

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

The old man was in a wheel chair, sitting there, when the woman rushed up to him.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she said, but he didn't know what she was talking about.

The woman's parents had been saved from a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, and she wanted to personally thank the wheelchair-bound veteran.

"I fought in the Pacific," the man said, and she said, "It doesn't matter: Thank you."

To Bob Konrad, that story sums up the point of the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. It sums up the honor flights, where vets in their 80s are gathered together and flown to D.C., to see the memorial. It's all about thanking people who deserve to be thanked, even though they would never ask, and don't believe they've done anything special.

Konrad's an example of this, too. Asked where he served, he said he was in the Navy, in the Pacific, and quickly declares he's not a hero, not like the other veterans in the room, not compared to what some of these men went through.

"Nobody fired a shot at me," he said.

Konrad was one of a roomful of veterans who gathered in a church hall in Fayetteville early Wednesday morning. Vets from around the Southern Crescent and from as far away as Kennesaw came for the third Fayette Honor Flight.

The group, in cooperation with AirTran Airways, is paying to send the veterans to the memorial in D.C. When the memorial was completed in 2004, 60 years after the end of the of World War II, about 70 percent of the veterans had already died. Today, the generation that fought Germany, Italy and Japan is dying at a rate of 1,200 a day.

"There's a steak house down by the movie theater [in Fayetteville]," Konrad said. "When they honor World War II vets, it used to be half the room would stand up. But last time, only four or five people got to their feet."

The honor flights are intended to get the veterans to the memorial, offering them the thanks they are due.

"Our veteran heroes aren't asking for recognition," reads the organization's official, vision statement. "It is our position that they deserve it. Our program is just a small token of our appreciation for those that gave so much."

Many of these men wouldn't have ever gotten the chance to see the memorial dedicated to their service, if it weren't for the Honor Flight program.

Dan Williams, who served with the infantry in Germany, said he wouldn't have gone to the nation's capital without the assistance of the Honor Flight.

"I don't travel that well, any more," Williams said. "I wouldn't have tried it. For me, the airport and everything is just too much ... It's easier with a group."

The group moved out at about 6:45 a.m., Wednesday, shuffling past an honor guard of Junior ROTC members, who lined both sides of the exit, standing at attention with their sabers.

A high school band played a peppy big-band number. The old soldiers shook hands with U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) and loaded onto the two buses waiting to take them to the airport.

"If you've never been to that wall, it's awesome," the congressman said.