Special Photo: Gary Ezell ---- A group of mostly WWII veterans from Conyers Honor Flight pose in front of the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C
Shelton Keaton served for 22 years in the Navy, beginning in 1944, and visiting the memorial dedicated to WWII veterans in Washington, D.C., on an Honor Flight trip recently brought back a lot of memories of his time in the service.
Perhaps what left a more significant impression on him, though, are the memories he created while being amidst the area's war memorials for the day, and meeting people who thanked him for his service.
"It was a fulfilling experience," said Keaton, who also served during the Korean War and at the start of the Vietnam War, having retired from the Navy in 1966. "It was so much admiration going on at the time from the public ... It was such a congratulatory time, little children, grown-ups, military personnel. It just made you feel real good and I recommend it to anybody who hasn't seen it."
Keaton visited Washington, D.C., and several war memorials in April as a participant in the Honor Flight program. Honor Flight transports WWII veterans to D.C. for a day in order for them to tour the National WWII Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and the United States Air Force Memorial.
Honor Flight finances the day-long trip for the veterans, and each veteran is assigned one caretaker for the day, who pays for their own trips. The program is run by volunteers and funded with donations.
More than 120 Honor Flight programs in 41 states exist throughout the country, and Conyers Honor Flight is the hub for the central Georgia area. The veterans gather at the American Legion Post 77 in Conyers (which also supplies the group meeting space) at 4 a.m. and travel to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport aboard buses supplied by First Baptist Church of Conyers. A caravan of Rockdale County Sheriff's Office and city of Conyers police vehicles, Patriot Guard motorcycle riders, and American Legion motorcyclists accompany the veterans to their gate at AirTran Airways.USO volunteers greet the veterans at Reagan National Airport and the veterans then climb aboard a tour bus that takes them to the various war memorials and monuments in Washington, D.C. Along with caretakers, the group is also chaperoned by emergency medical technicians, paramedics and a professional photographer.After a whirlwind day in D.C., the group flies back to Atlanta and arrives in Conyers at about 10:30 p.m.
Since its inception in 2011, Conyers Honor Flight has provided seven flights under the guidance of Conyers Honor Flight President and volunteer Dave Smith.
"Something different usually happens on every trip that's memorable," said Smith.
On this most recent trip, a group of school children spontaneously visited with the veterans, who were lined up for a group photo.
"(The teachers) asked, 'Could our kids come over and speak to the veterans?' They started going down the line and shaking hands and thanking them for their service. There had to be 300 kids in that line," said Smith.
Smith said the WWII veterans are dying at a rate of about 1,000 each day. Conyers Honor Flight is now allowing Korean War veterans, and even some Vietnam veterans, on the trip. They are currently looking for veterans to take the next Conyers Honor Flight, scheduled for Sept. 25.
"It's just very rewarding to do it. It needs to be done. If it wasn't for this generation, we wouldn't be living in the manner we do today. There's no doubt in my mind about that," said Smith.
To learn more or to download an application, visit www.honorflightconyers.com or call 770-483-4049.