“We will remember the Heroes Flight for the rest of our lives. … We’ve had a barrel of fun. There will be things I will remember for the rest of my life, whether that be short or long. There is not a single complaint. Never have we been treated with such graciousness. Absolutely beautiful!”
Doug Tanner, Athens
Sixth Heroes Flight, May 2013
On this military mission, everyone is a volunteer. And to a person, they can’t think of anything they would rather do.
Thursday morning early, the Brookshire Grocery Co. / Super 1 Heroes Flight will set off on its eighth adventure — taking a group of World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C., to see memorials to their wars. With this trip, Brookshire’s will have enabled about 250 service men and women to see the nation’s capital, to get a personal tour of the Capitol, to spend an afternoon at the World War II Memorial, to witness the Changing of the Guard at Arlington and to see dozens of museums and monuments.
We’ve documented the reactions of veterans through stories and photos. “Life changing, unbelievable, a trip of a lifetime …” they say. Tears flow, voices falter, and we all understand.
For the guardians — Brookshire’s employees, store managers and few of us lucky folks who get to accompany them — the rewards are every bit as great. Yes, it can be exhausting … pulling wheelchairs from under the bus and pushing our precious charges on a tour of monuments, moving luggage … and checking to make sure all the black hats, khaki hats, blue hats, white hats are accounted for.
But, as all would say, “It’s a good tired.”
For this column, I asked the volunteer a single question: “Why do you do it?” I’ll let them answer in their own words:
Sam Anderson, Brookshire’s community involvement manager, does the heavy lifting. He organizes, schedules, leads, calls the roll at every stop, worries, arranges, entertains and makes it happen. He had this to say:
“I remember standing at the east entrance to the World War II Memorial next to a man who had served in both the European and Pacific theaters. With tears in his eyes, he said, ‘I can’t believe I’m really here. I never thought I’d see it. I would not have been able to do it on my own. Thank you to Brookshire’s.’ I replied that in reality it was us saying thank you to him for what he did for us so many years ago.”
“My youngest son graduates from high school next week. He’s 18 years old. It would be extremely difficult to send him off to any conflict, let alone one like WWII. Many of these veterans were 18 or even younger when they went off to war. They flew planes, fired artillery shells, drove ships and tanks. And many didn’t come home. I can’t imagine how hard that would have been for them and their mothers and fathers. When I mention that to these veterans, the normal response is, ‘Well, it had to be done.’”
Rick Ellis, Brookshire’s vice president of marketing, shared both corporate and personal responses to my “Why do you do it?” question.
“Corporately, these trips have been so well received by our customers and by the public in general, it has given us great motivation to continue doing them as long as we possibly can. Brookshire’s has always had a very strong, and real, personal side of the business, and very strong ties to the communities we serve, so this has been a great way to allow us to give back, especially to those who have given so much to our country. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s been a privilege to have been able to sponsor these ‘heroes’ over the past few years.
“Personally, speaking for myself, these trips to Washington with so many of our nation’s Greatest Generation, have been among the most gratifying experiences of my life. Just getting to know these men and women, laugh with them, cry with them, and become friends with them, is a highlight for me, and the rest of us who have participated. Seeing them make new friends with other veterans, seeing them being “swarmed” by hundreds of school kids from all over the nation — kids who just wanted to shake their hands, give them a hug, and thank them for their service — makes it all worthwhile.
“Seeing the look on their faces as they open large packages of personal letters from school kids — written just to them — and then read them with tears in their eyes, is all very special. Hearing about how two of these gentlemen laid on their beds — in their underwear — until nearly daylight the next morning, reading each and every letter. And then, doing the same thing with their families when they return home, tired, but not ready to let the trip end just yet. Heartwarming.
“I’ve bumped into ‘our veterans’ all over East Texas and other areas, and it’s always great to see them. I’ve been asked to sit in while they spoke to classrooms full of kids, and I always do if I can. I trade emails almost every day with a handful that know how to use a computer. One in particular emails me several times a day — Mr. Rasmussen — and I try to respond, just to let him know I got his message. We’ve lost a few of these heroes who have traveled with us — some very soon after our trips with them — and many of us have attended their funeral services and were able to honor them one more time. Again, pretty special.
“I’ve also pushed many a wheelchair, uphill and down — and pushed (one man) slowly along the Vietnam War Memorial as he ran his fingers across the names. He just wanted to touch those names, even though he didn’t know any of them personally, and he cried while we passed slowly by, as did I. I’ll never forget Mr. Dees, sitting in his wheelchair in front of the barricaded Lincoln Memorial, with protesters all around, with “two thumbs up.” Then later telling me he really wanted to give another “sign!” Then, he apologized to me and Ellen for having said that! Sweet guy, and only 97 years young.
“I know these heroes get a huge lift in their lives from going on these trips with us. So do we, as you know.”
Ann Brookshire, wife of Brookshire’s CEO Brad Brookshire, has been on almost all of the trips. On this trip, she’ll be in charge of the “khaki hats,” and had this to say:
“Dave, it is an honor to go … but everyone would say that. It is a privilege … but probably everyone would say that. I go because it is fun AND to honor my dad, who would be 100 next month. These men and women are delightful, funny, charming and some are real characters. They have great stories to tell and too often we don’t listen to hear their journey. Over the course of these Brookshire Grocery Company trips we have had a bit of everything, and it really tells the story of WWII and those who fought and served.
“My dad was in the reserves and was not actually in WWII. His war effort was converting his factory to making 35 mm shell casings for the artillery. I still have those shells.”
Carolyn Langston, who works alongside Sam to help coordinate and schedule the trips, had some personal insights of her own:
“Taking our veterans to Washington, D.C., is an honor for me. I am so proud and thankful for all veterans, but especially the WWII veterans. They helped preserve the freedoms that all of us enjoy today. This will be my eighth trip to DC with our WWII veterans and each and every one has its own special memories. I love to listen to their stories and watch the expressions on their faces.
“One time when we visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial and we were walking through, Mr. Crain — the veteran I was pushing in a wheelchair — was talking about the time he could remember sitting on the porch listening to President Roosevelt on the radio making a speech. He said he could remember Roosevelt saying, ‘I’ve seen war, Eleanor has seen war, I hate war.’ That was his version anyway!
“These men and women are getting on up in age and are often reluctant to get away from home and leave their families for a few days, not knowing for sure if they can make the trip. But always, as the trip comes to an end and we all return home again, they all seem to be standing a little straighter and walking a little prouder! They once served for all of us and I just want to try to give back to them. God Bless America!”
Brooke (Buffington) Moran, who got married recently, will lead the “black hats” on this trip. She recalled a favorite memory.
“One of my favorite Heroes Flight memories took place on my first trip. We had a gentleman who was restricted to a wheelchair the entire trip. When visiting the Marine Memorial, he was insistent on taking a picture standing up in front of the memorial for his grandkids. I remember several of the guardians on the trip helping him out of his wheelchair, holding him up and counting to three. On three, the guardians stepped away long enough for the photographer to snap a picture, and the guardians were right back at his side to help him back into his wheelchair. I know it was a proud moment for him, and a picture his grandchildren will cherish.”
Lauren Whitus has served as Brookshire’s photographer on four trips. Expecting a baby any day, she won’t be on this flight but wanted to express her thoughts:
“Being part of a younger generation I never fully understood the great sacrifice the men and women made who so willingly served in World War II. WWII was just something we talked about briefly in history class before moving on to the next subject, and mainly at surface level only learning about Hitler and a few of the “big battles.” The first trip and every trip since has drastically expanded my appreciation for these men and women.
“Because I work for such a great company, I have had the honor to go on four trips as the photographer. But more than taking photos, I’ve been able to sit with these men and women and hear their stories and life experiences, gaining more knowledge and more importantly sharing life with the greatest generation! Before these trips, I would see military men and women and never think about the sacrifice they are making. Now I make it a point to stop and thank them for their service to our nation.”
Teri Nolley is another member of Sam’s team who has made every trip. She shared these thoughts:
“I have had the privilege to go on eight Heroes Flights, and these trips have been the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have listened to stories about the War and things that we often take for granted, and it’s given me a new perspective on what these heroes went through during that time but also on this generation as a whole.
“I always come back from each trip changed and grateful for the freedoms that we have and that our children will have on into the future. Some of the friendships I have made have continued on past the trips. I still check on the veterans assigned to my care and, because of this, I’ve been able to continue to deepen my relationships because I’ve also met their families. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thanked for providing the ‘experience of a lifetime’ for their loved one. But it’s nothing that I have done — I am thankful to work for a company that wants to give back and puts people first always. It’s a very selfless program that makes me proud!”
Thanks, everyone, I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ll see you bright and early at the airport.
Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column runs every Wednesday in the My Generation section. Thanks for reading.