I can get choked up easily about lots of things. I'm pretty much a sap, but few get as strong a reaction from me as patriotic events. The National Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance are both good for blinking back a few tears. Whenever I see a soldier in fatigues, I get choked up. I was in an airport when several soldiers walked through and I had to bite my lip. I was thrilled to be able to add my applause when people spontaneously began to clap.
The most amazing patriotic event I have been part of was welcoming my cousin Nelson home from his second tour in Iraq a couple years ago. After waiting for several hours in the hangar at Quonset Point Naval Air Station, we finally got word that their plane was just a few minutes out. As we crowded near the open doors of the huge hangar, the big plane flew past and tipped its wings. What a sight! What a feeling. It was one of the most emotional moments I have ever experienced. As I sit here now my throat is full.
As the 97 soldiers walked off that plane through the phalanx of local politicians and dignitaries into the hangar, the cheers and applause of the several hundred waiting was deafening. It was a beautiful thing to watch and be part of.
In today's paper there was a report of 200 women who served as Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASPs who were in Washington recently to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress. This honor was in recognition of their service during World War II. Sixty-five years after the end of WW II we finally got around to saying Thanks to these women who flew planes but weren't considered to be real military pilots.
During World War II, a select group of young women pilots volunteered to become the WASPs, the first women in history to fly American military aircraft. From some research I learned that the WASP pilots each already had a pilot's license. Of the more than 25,000 women who applied for WASP service, 1,078 earned their wings and became the first women to fly American military aircraft. That there were that many licensed female pilots in this country at that time stunned me.
Although not trained for combat, their instruction was essentially the same as that for aviation cadets. The drop-out rate was comparable to the men being trained as pilots, too. They received no gunnery training and very little formation flying and acrobatics, but went through the maneuvers necessary to be able to recover from any position. From 1942 to 1943, they flew sixty million miles of non-combat military missions.
Last year, a bill was passed to award a Congressional Gold Medal to these women. Of the women who received their wings as Women Airforce Service Pilots, approximately 300 are living today. Now mostly in their late 80's and early 90's, two hundred of them were honored last Wednesday in a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
Here is a paragraph from today's article:
As a military band played "The Star-Spangled Banner," one of the women who had been sitting in a wheelchair stood up and saluted through the entire song as a relative gently supported her back.
As I read this, I all but burst into tears. And it took this country 65 years to not only honor but to acknowledge these women. When they died during duty, they were not given military honors, no flags draped their coffins. In fact, when some died, fellow female aviators often helped pay their funeral expenses. When the unit was disbanded in 1944, the women had to pay their own bus fare home from Texas. They received none of the financial or educational benefits given to veterans back then either. They weren't considered to be members of the military.
As a teenager I remember the photos and the stories of how the Vietnam veterans were greeted when they came home. I realized then, and we all know now, how disgraceful this country acted at that time. I wish there was some way we could make that up to them, too.
The last of today's article quoted Dorothy Eppstein, 92, of Kalmazoo, Michigan, "It was fun coming into a strange airport and having the mechanics say, 'Where's the pilot?' "
Fun, indeed. Thanks, ladies, you blazed a trail for many of us.