Anticipation infused the 14 people riding the 47-passenger Motor Coach as it slid through the pre-dawn darkness headed for Loveland, Colorado. The bus, carrying two Korean War Veterans along with hospital staff, family and friends, loaded at the entrance of the Haxtun Hospital District’s Extended Care Unit at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, Sept. 14. Driver Myron Graybill then guided his County Express vehicle behind the flashing lights of a Haxtun Police Department cruiser and two Haxtun Volunteer Fire Department trucks as the caravan turned west on Highway 6. The escort, which pulled off to let the bus pass at the west edge of Haxtun, gave only a hint of the electrified experience that awaited the travelers in Loveland and beyond.
The bus ride marked the end of a sometimes-bumpy route to success and the beginning of a much-awaited Honor Flight excursion for ECU residents Raymond “Ray” Schropfer and Phil Edwards that took them to see the Veteran Memorials in Washington, D.C. Along for the ride were HHD Activities director Julie Shaw, Manager of Clinical Operations Denise Smith, RN, and her husband John Smith, Head of Nursing Diane Fryrear, RN, ECU residents Berdine Koberstein, Earlene Krehmeyer and Sandy Kurtzer, Raymond’s wife Isabelle Schropfer, Raymond’s daughter Mary Ann Edwards and son Mike Schropfer, Patrick Dick, HHD maintenance and Reon Chaney.
After a stop at McDonalds in Sterling, Colorado the bus picked up Myron’s wife Carol before entering the I-76 westbound ramp. Upon hearing that the food was for veterans and friends headed for an Honor Flight, McDonald employees donated the meals. The bus stopped again at the Wiggins, Colorado rest stop to pick up Ray’s daughter Betty Schropfer, who lives in Akron, Colorado.
Around 4 a.m., a small group of Haxtun residents, Brian and Michelle Lock, with their children, Aly, Carter and Kaylee, began their early morning sojourn to Loveland where they joined Korean War Veteran and Honor Flight participant John Brunner of Sterling. John, along with his daughter Debbie Wolff, his grandson and wife Casey and Megan Wolff and children, Ryland and Ashyn, all of Haxtun, spent the night at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Loveland, where John, Raymond and Phil joined around 120 other World War II, Korean and Vietnam Veterans for a send-off ceremony. Michelle Lock, John’s granddaughter said John came back excited to tell the family all about the trip. He was especially impressed with “looking up at the tall buildings.”
John Brunner, 86, served in the United States Army, 1950-51, during a time of “fierce fighting” in the Korean War. He was promoted from Staff Sargent First Class to Master Sargent, his rank at the time of his discharge, while serving with Company B, 160th Regiment, which was stationed in Japan with the 40th Infantry.
Unfortunately, Brunner went directly from the flight to the hospital on his return. Debbie said the medics reported that he became ill on the return flight and suggested the family take him to the hospital immediately, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He was doing much better by Tuesday, said Debbie. He was later transferred to the hospital in Sterling, where he continues to recoupeate.
The path to Loveland and then on to Washington, D.C. began for Phil and Ray after Shaw watched a newscast in October 2013 when Congressional gridlock shut down the government and consequently placed barriers in front of around 140 World War II Veterans waiting to get into the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I wondered why there were so many veterans there at one time,” said Shaw. “I found out it was an Honor Flight that was locked out.”
That knowledge sparked her interest so she logged onto the Honor Flight Northern Colorado website. “The more I read about the Guardians, the more I thought we need to do this.”
She first thought about sending all of Haxtun Hospital’s ECU veterans, but as time went on, she found that not all of them met the requirements. However, she felt Ray and Phil would meet the criteria so she printed out the applications from the website, gave one to Ray’s wife Isabelle and filled Phil’s out herself. She said Isabelle was nervous at first, but after discussing the idea with Ray and their children, decided to fill out the application. Then began the bumps in the road.
The first hitch was the cost of transportation to get the men to Loveland. They would need a bus with a hydraulic lift to load Ray who is wheelchair bound. The cost, she was told, would be $750. “Later, the guy told me he didn’t expect to hear back from us because we are so small and would not be able to raise the money.” However, the Haxtun community came through with more than she needed, which helped when she found out the price would be $1,000 rather than the expected $750.
She started fundraising with a “Canteen” dance. “We couldn’t call it a USO dance because it wasn’t’ really a USO dance,” she said. That dance garnered over $300. From that point on, word got out and the donations came in. “People just started bringing money.” Julie’s son, Keith Shaw, did his part as well. Keith, a staff sergeant in the Air Force, took flyers door to door in his neighborhood near Hill Air Force Base in Utah and raised $135. Total raised from all sources $1,030.
Julie warned the two men that it could be a while before they received official acceptance of their applications from HFNC, but she did receive verbal confirmation and felt things were set. Terror struck about a week later, however, when Isabelle reported that HFNC would not take Ray. “It was horrible,” said Isabelle. “I got the acceptance letter in the mail in the morning and the phone call in the afternoon.”
Julie asked Isabelle to hold off telling Ray. “I said, ‘don’t tell him,’ and I called and talked to Colonel (Stan) Cass,” founder and president of HFNC and a Vietnam Veteran. “I said, ‘you made a commitment and you need to honor it.’ He was nice, but frustrated,” she said.
Cass called her back a short time later and said the medical team would make the necessary adjustments to take Ray. “He said, ‘you are right, they need to keep this commitment.’ So, he worked hard to make it happen. He honored the commitment and he did it very gracefully.”
The next hitch came because the Colorado State University busses used to transport the veterans from Loveland to Denver International Airport do not have hydraulic lifts. “He (Cass) asked if we would mind adding our bus to the caravan and HFNC would pick up the extra cost.” She agreed, but there was yet one more problem. Ray’s wheelchair did not fold up so there would be no way to store it on the airplane. HHD’s maintenance crew came to the rescue this time. “Patrick and Mark Evers (head of maintenance) got together and found a wheelchair that they totally rebuilt with custom head and foot rests,” with Ray directing construction. “Ray started sitting up straighter, it made a huge difference and it folds up.”
Ray then began physical therapy to become stronger in preparation for the trip. “He is awake more, visiting and laughing,” she said, adding that things began to fall together.
Then came a final scare when Graybill called to tell her that a company called Navigator Motors Coach Inc., a private company out of Norfolk, Neb. wants to shut down County Express by taking trips away from the federally funded bus service, which is not allowed to compete with private companies. Navigator Motor Coach Inc recently took a trip to Black Hawk, Colorado away from County Express, but “He (Graybill) did not know if the company would take this trip.” He told her if they did, it would cost considerably more and the company would only need to give 72 hours notice. Shaw held her breath until the deadline at 3 a.m. on Thursday came and went. “I prayed about it and left it in God’s hands.”
Literally hundreds of volunteers, including the “Guardians” who would accompany each veteran on the trip, met the bus as it pulled into the Embassy Suites parking lot in Loveland. The Guardians play an important role on Honor Flights, including “ensuring that every veteran has a safe and memorable experience” by providing assistance as needed throughout the trip. In addition to time and service, each Guardian must make a $900 donation, which is due once he or she is selected to serve on a designated flight.
John Lube served as Ray’s Guardian, a first-tine experience for this Vietnam Veteran from Fort Collins, Colorado.
Vietnam Veteran Charley Barnes of Greeley, Colorado assisted Phil. Charley began volunteering for Honor Flight six years ago as one of the hundreds of motorcycle riders who escort the caravans from Loveland to DIA. He said he loved riding as an escort, but wanted to experience being a Guardian. An announcer for K99 Radio Station in Greeley, Charley took his motorcycle efforts even further last summer when he completed a 10-day, 10,000-mile “endurance” ride that took him from the border of Canada to the border of Mexico in 22 hours and coast to coast from San Diego, California to Jacksonville, Florida in 20 hours. His ride, completed on June 14, 2014, took him 10,076 miles and raised over $30,000 for NFNC.
John’s Guardian Allison Berry of Pierce, Colorado wanted to go on the trip because her father Verne Berry, a Navy Pilot and Korean Veteran, wanted to go. She served as a Guardian for both John and Verne. Guardians can assist from one to three veterans on a flight.
The Guardians ushered the veterans through the hotel lobby where each received a canvas bag containing a flight jacket, snacks, a disposable camera and a t-shirt with the Honor Flight logo. Each also received a cap specifying the war he or she served in before heading into a larger room with tables set for breakfast donated by the hotel chain.
A soft respectful exhilaration broken occasionally by applause hung over the room as the announcer recognized active duty military, purple-heart recipients and contributors. However, he said, “the real thank you is the reason we are here; to thank the veterans for what they have done.” Every person in the room who could stood. “Truly, we would not be the Land of the Free if we were not the Home of the Brave,” he concluded.
Following a heart-stopping exhibition by a live American eagle and the presenting and posting of the colors by the CSU Army ROTC Color Guard, U.S. Congressman Cory Gardner spoke. “We in this room this morning gave the Pledge of Allegiance; we placed our hands over our hearts; we saluted the flag; but no one has done more for this country to make sure that those stars and strips, the red, white and blue are together, than the people who will be going this morning.”
The initial goal of HFNC was to take every World War II Veteran possible to visit the World War II Memorial. However, as the number of World War II Veterans declined, the organization opened the flights to others veterans, including all terminally ill vets, purple-heart recipients from any conflict, Korean vets and Vietnam vets. This flight took 23 World War II veterans. Each flight averages 120 veterans, 60 plus Guardians and 12 to 15 medical personnel. This marked the 13th Honor Flight for the totally volunteer organization that formed in 2008. Including the first Honor Flight in September 2008, the organization has sent some 1,700 Veterans to Washington, D.C.
One more last minute glitch met Julie in Loveland when she discovered that each veteran needed a photo ID to board the charter flight at DIA. Isabelle received the word and brought Ray’s, but Phil came unprepared. Proving that her “Bulldog” nature remained in tact, Julie hurried to find an alternative. She had Denise Smith take a photo, then called HHD and had them send Phil’s records. With the photo attached, officials accepted the makeshift ID.
The Loveland ceremony concluded with a ballad by Denver country music artist Pete Martinez as the crowd exited the building confronted by an inspiring sight. Hundreds of motorcycles and emergency vehicles along with hundreds of fully uniformed motorcycle riders, EMTs and law enforcement personnel escorted the five busses along I-25 to DIA, where the veterans gathered in a private hanger in preparation for boarding a U.S. Airways chartered Honor Flight. All involved volunteer their time.
The estimated 100 motorcycles followed by ambulances and police cruisers with lights flashing entered the route below a huge American flag hanging from a crane. Motorcycle riders sped ahead to block the entrances to the interstate to prevent vehicles from entering the honored caravan. On each side of the interstate air life helicopters provided by the Medical Center of the Rockies flew along side, occasionally hovering to let the caravan catch up. Spectators waving flags and holding signs that read, “thank you,” lined the sidewalks outside the Embassy Suites, at points along the interstate and on overpasses along the route. “All of this is for you guys,” Charley Barnes told Ray and Phil. He said some of the motorcycle riders are veterans, some are not, but all show up to say thank you. The flight crews requests the flights both directions for the same reason.
Ray and Phil, who remained awake throughout the trip, stared in awe at the exhibition of support that surrounded them. More of the same awaited them in Denver and Washington, D.C.
“This was worth getting up at 2 a.m. for,” said Denise Smith. On Monday night, while she and others waited for the return flight, Denise recognized one of the men in uniform as her nephew, Air Force Tech Sergeant Ricki Massengill, who a short time later assisted by his peers helped Phil, Ray and the other veterans disembark from the airplane.
Phil Edwards, 84, joined the National Guard in 1948 and two years later enlisted in the United States Air Force. He underwent basic training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas, then spent six months in New Mexico and two years in Guam before transferring to Smokey Hill AFB at Salina, Kansas, where he accepted the option to end his military service a year short of his four-year commitment. Phil refused to discuss his work while in the military except to say he carried a “very high security clearance” to perform work that remains “classified” to this day.
When Phil arrived back in Denver, his Guardian, Charley Barnes, told him to remember, “that what happened in Washington, D.C. stays in Washington, D.C.” Phil, smiling broadly, repeated that mantra when asked what he did during the trip. He did relate that he particularly liked the young ladies who “cut off his beer” supply, and that the buildings surrounding the monuments were “fantastic.”
Ray Schropfer, 82, enlisted in the United States Air Force at age 19 in 1951. He took basic training in New Mexico before heading to Wiesbaden AFB in Germany, where he remained until his discharge in 1955. He said his best experience during the trip came just north of Kansas City, when he awoke thinking he was “flying over Kansas.” Turns out he was and, while he enjoyed looking out the window of the airplane at 35,000 feet, he liked getting off the airplane and seeing the ground once again. He suggested anyone participating in an Honor Flight should take a tape recorder to record all that happened. “Take two tapes,” he said.
Both men expressed appreciation to everyone who helped make the trip possible, from those who donated money to the military men who helped them on and off the airplane to the Guardians who assisted them along the way.
On returning, each veteran received a quit crafted by the Ault Daughters of the American Revolution and a DC Photo Book with a list of all the veterans on the flight.
Colonel Loren “Skip” Johnson, Commander of the 140th Mission Support Group, Colorado Air National Guard, Buckley AFB, who spent eight months in Afghanistan, spoke to the veterans in Denver before they left for Washington, D.C. He apologized to the Vietnam Veterans. “I cannot imagine a country that did not appreciate your service back in that timeframe. When I got home from Afghanistan, I couldn’t walk through the Baltimore Airport without someone grabbing my hand, patting me on the back and thanking me. So, I feel like I was the recipient of what you deserve.” He said Vietnam woke up the conscious of the country. “When we realized how we treated you, who volunteered to cross over a great sea to help other people solve their problems and give them their lives, I’m so honored to shake the hand of a Vietnam Veteran knowing what you went through. You are appreciated and I can’t wait for you to get on this airplane and go to see the memorial you so well earned.”
During the 30-plus minutes it took to load the veterans, many of them wheelchair bond, onto the aircraft, personnel representing every branch of the United States military stood at attention.
The veterans attended a banquet that night in Washington D.C. before bedding down in the hotel for the night. The next day, they visited four memorials: World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Iwo Jima. They also drove by the Arlington Cemetery, but the busses could not enter. They arrived back at DIA around 9 p.m. on Monday night, exhausted but inspired.
Debbie Wolff’s said her dad could not believe all of the attention they received. “It really got to him. He really had a great time.” She said the entire family was “touched” by the show of support.