Pa. veterans step up to honor their own with Honor Wagon
Beaver County Times, Pa.
FINDLAY TWP., Pa. — In August, the dignified remains of a soldier were returned to Pittsburgh International Airport with full military honors. After being unloaded from the plane, the casket was placed on a regular baggage cart and driven to the cargo area, where it was then transferred to a hearse.
“Because of Sept. 11 and security, the family and hearse aren’t allowed up on the ramp at the gate anymore,” said John Wakeley, an associate and lifetime member of Beaver County’s Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 862, who also works airport operations at Pittsburgh International Airport.
“So what happens is when the plane lands at the gate, they unload the casket (and) put it on just a regular baggage cart like a set of golf clubs.”
This didn’t sit well with Wakeley, who as a member of the American Legion Riders, was also asked to escort the dignified remains back to the soldier’s hometown of Erie.
“We felt it was disrespectful, that the remains weren’t being honorably treated,” Wakeley said.
“They wouldn’t put other bags (on the cart also,) but it was just a plain white cart. Sometimes the curtains would be open on it, sometimes they wouldn’t. The carts are dirty, the carts are rusty.”
Allegheny County Airport Authority spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said the changes in how dignified remains are handled changed for various reasons and were unrelated to Sept. 11.
But after the incident, Wakeley got to talking with Mark Chamoditz, who also works in airfield operations at the airport. Chamoditz made some phone calls and convinced the airport authority to donate a baggage cart, should a local chapter refurbish it.
Wakeley then asked some fellow members of Chapter 862, including vice president Richard Kamzelski, Rich Tindell and Larry Googins, to help build what would eventually be called the Honor Wagon.
To refurbish the cart, the middle shelf was removed, it was repainted and a roller system to accommodate a casket was installed. Sides made of Lexan, a glass/plastic composite, were installed and the insignia of all five branches of service were printed on it.
The chapter credits the generosity of many to help make the cart a reality, including Signs by Sam, Paff Custom Welding LLC, the airport authority, Beachem’s Sandblasting Service and Franklin Township-based Hall Industries, the founder of which — Harold Hall — is also a veteran.
“That’s the unbelievable part of it,” Kamzelski said. “Most of this stuff has been donated by the people who worked on it. We had money set aside to do it, and everybody’s just going out of their way to help us.” According to chapter officials, Hall Industries has completed the refurbishing free of charge.
The Honor Cart will be unveiled Friday at a special ceremony at the airport. The family of the fallen soldier who sparked the project was invited, but there has been no word yet on whether they will attend.
And these local veterans can rest easy knowing they are taking care of their own — although it isn’t always an easy job.
“We hope it never has to be used,” said Chapter 862 President Lloyd “Skip” Haswell. “But we know better.”