Local veterans find their Honor Flight experiences moving, memorable

Audrey Gomez

It took a nudge or two to get Tom Mealue, 81, to sign up for the South Willamette Valley Honor Flight.

“She twisted my arm,” Mealue said with a laugh, referring to Mary Blanshan, who with her husband Dale, volunteers for the organization, a regional hub of the Honor Flight Network.

“It’s free for them,” Mary Blanshan said.

The trip, which lasts four days, costs $1,100. It is completely free for veterans, but guardians must pay their own way.

Mealue, a Korean War veteran, asked his son Ben to travel with him.

Ben also is a veteran; he was a Navy Seabee.

The father and son laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an honor for which they applied and were chosen.

Mealue and two other local veterans, Tom Hyer and his brother Karel Hyer, were among local participants in various Honor Flights this year. Karel suffered a heart attack upon arriving in Washington D.C. and died Oct. 27, at the age of 88. They were traveling with a different Honor Flight group than Mealue’s.

Tom Hyer, 90, said his participation in the events in the capital were limited, due to the circumstances.

“I didn’t even take my camera out of my bag,” he said.

But he still was able to visit the National Air and Space Museum.

The two Hyers, along with their brother James, served in the Navy during World War II, following in the footsteps of their father James, Tom said.

Many of the veterans who participate in Honor Flights are World War II veterans, though Korean War veterans are now being selected.

“We give priority due to age to the World War II veterans, and just started taking Korean War veterans in May of this year,” said Mike Pungercar, director of SWVHF. “The breakdown, as of our October Honor Flight, is 300 World War II veterans and 41 Korean War veterans.”

Among the sights veterans visit during the trip are the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.

The elder Mealue said he felt a kind of unspeakable joy when he visited.

“It’s so moving,” Mary Blanshan said. “Most all of us cried. Can’t make it through without crying.”

Arlington Cemetery had a powerful impact on Mealue.

“Arlington is even more gripping than the memorial,” Mealue said. “Arlington is God-made.”

The veterans were celebrated at each stop throughout their four-day experience.

When they pulled in to Dulles International Airport in Washington, fire trucks sprayed a water arch over the plane while it was on the tarmac.

They were greeted by supporters inside the airport and had a police escort the whole day.

“(It was) the highlight of my life for the last 20 years, except retirement,” Mealue said. “Maybe this supersedes that.”

Tom Hyer recalled the return to Portland with great emotion.

He said that after the plane came to a stop at the terminal, three Portland police officers came aboard and asked everyone who could walk to exit to the tunnel. Then they brought out those who needed wheelchairs and the veterans moved in a procession out into the terminal.

“The city police pushed them the full length of the terminal, from one end to other. People lined up the full length, on both sides, cheering and clapping.

“Every time I think about it, I start crying a little bit,” Hyer added, pausing to regain his composure. “All the old guys were crying, blowing their noses and wiping their eyes. It was quite a sight. I don’t know how long that terminal is, but it seemed like it was miles.”

There was a less extravagant part of the Mealue’s trip that, he said, was particularly meaningful.

“We had two chaplains with us,” Mealue said. “They prayed over every meal.”

“We don’t leave God out of any of this,” he added.

“That’s the only reason any of them were able to get home,” Dale Blanshan said.