West Virginia is one of the most patriotic states in our country. Whenever America has needed them, West Virginians have answered this country's call, generation after generation. Even when it looks the darkest, these patriots step forward and say, "I'll do it -- I'll protect this country." That's why they are my heroes.
Last week, 29 of these heroes, veterans of three of America's wars, traveled from our great state to Washington, D.C. -- many of them for the first time -- to visit the memorials built to honor their service and sacrifice to our nation.
The Denver Foundation's second "Always Free Honor Flight" brought these West Virginia warriors, at no cost, to our capital. And it was my privilege to play a part in honoring them for helping to secure and preserve America's freedom.
They toured our beautiful Capitol, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial and the Iwo Jima Memorial -- monuments to their great victories and their great sacrifices for the cause of freedom.
Unfortunately, unlike the first "Always Free Honor Flight," I was unable to meet them in person. But I was able to greet them via an Internet videoconferencing process known as Skyping.
It worked like a charm. The veterans and their guardians, some of whom were Junior ROTC cadets from high schools in Bluefield and Princeton, were sitting in a room in the Capitol. I was in Romney, celebrating the city's 250th anniversary. But I could see them, and they could see me. And we could talk with each other, face to face. It was almost as if we were sitting only a few feet away from each other.
Twenty-nine of the Honor Flight veterans served in World War II, five in the Korean War, and 18 in Vietnam. The oldest was 90, the youngest 56. They were from all parts of our great state. They came from the counties of McDowell, Mercer, Clay, Raleigh, Greenbrier, Fayette, Cabell, Monroe, Nicholas, and Kanawha. They represented the more than 167,200 veterans living in West Virginia today, 121,100 of whom served during the armed conflicts of the last 70 years.
Before I talked to the veterans, I read accounts of their bravery. And two were exceptional, even among such an outstanding group of West Virginians:
- Steven Harris, a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran from Ronceverte, who earned two Bronze Stars for combat heroism and the Air Medal for valor in aerial assaults as an infantryman in Vietnam.
- Gale Esker Brown of Indore, now 87 years old, but only 18 when he joined the Navy at the beginning of World War II, serving as a radar operator on a tank landing ship in the seas near Okinawa, Sasebo, Japan, and Saipan. He once met President Harry Truman.
But every veteran on the Honor Flight served this great country -- some abroad, some stateside; some as corporals, some as captains; some as machine gunners in the infantry, some as radar operators on ships, some as drivers in the artillery.
No matter the war, no matter the rank, no matter the duty, every one of them was willing to put their lives on the line for all of us. And I salute every one of them.
I am very grateful for the hard work of the West Virginians who made the October 3 trip possible, starting with The Denver Foundation and Little Buddy Radio located in Princeton.
But most of my gratitude is for the men and women who go to war for this nation, whose service and sacrifice are defined by the virtues of selflessness and devotion to duty. They are the Americans behind the guns. They are America's pride. They are themselves monuments and memorials -- to the cause of freedom.
Each of the memorials our veterans visited bears powerful witness to the spirit of the Americans who paid the price, bore the burden, and met the hardship of our wars. They are all clear evidence that "freedom is not free."
But on the northern end of the World War II Memorial, the words of General George Marshall are inscribed, and they are well worth remembering every time we salute our veterans and every time we prepare for war: "Our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other."
May it ever be so, and may God bless the United States of America and the men and women who keep us free.