The first time they came home, they were lucky to get any welcome at all.
“There wasn’t a soul waiting for me when I got back,” said David Countiss, a Korean War veteran. “This is different.”
A crowd of hundreds packed the terminal Wednesday night at McGhee Tyson Airport to give Countiss, 83, and more than 125 other East Tennessee veterans the welcome home most of them never got. The veterans of World War II and the Korean conflict had just wrapped up a daylong tour of historic monuments in Washington, courtesy of HonorAir Knoxville.
“It just couldn’t be any better,” said Edward Pettit, a 92-year-old Army veteran of World War II from LaFollette, Tenn. “The trip was worth every minute.”
Wednesday’s flight marked the 16th trip for HonorAir Knoxville. The program, established by Prestige Cleaners, has whisked more than 2,000 area veterans to the nation’s capital since 2007 for an all-expenses paid tour of the memorials dedicated in their honor.
“They were all beautiful,” Pettit said. “The World War II Memorial was what really touched me.”
The trip started before 8 a.m. when the veterans boarded a chartered U.S. Airways flight on their way to Washington. They toured the capital with a police escort as strangers lined up to thank them for their service.
“When we got off the plane, they were lined up a mile long,” said James Creswell, a 93-year-old World War II veteran from Maryville who served with the Army’s 82nd Airborne. “I’d never been there before. We got to see everything I could have hoped for.”
The crowd at McGhee Tyson for the home stretch of the journey aimed to outdo Washington. An archway of balloons decorated the arrival gate, with family, friends and strangers stretched the length of the terminal bearing signs and flags as the Central High School band played patriotic songs.
Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, who saw the veterans off on the first leg of the trip, stood near the gate.
“I never miss it,” Burchett said. “I always tell these guys, I owe everything but my salvation to the veterans.”
Members of Knoxville’s Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Unit of the Young Marines waited to push wheelchairs, carry luggage and offer assistance.
“A few of them came out last year and were so moved by the experience, we knew we had to come back,” said Virgil Young, the unit commander. “We try and teach them respect for these men and for what it means to have laid their lives on the line.”
The veterans offered their thanks in return.
“This is the second best trip I’ve ever made,” said Edgar Whitaker, a Navy veteran. “The best was to the altar.”