79 US veterans, 10 former Detroit Lions, one heck of a day in Washington
By BENJAMIN RAVEN | MLive.com | Published: November 6, 2019
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Andre Fluellen played parts of eight seasons with the Detroit Lions. Still, none of that mattered while he and veteran Jim Adkins were telling me about their immediate super glue-like bond in front of the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial in the nation’s capital.
Less than 24 hours after meeting, we’re on a flight from Kalamazoo to Washington, D.C., with other former Lions players and 79 U.S. veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. They’re telling me plans of a future salmon fishing trip together to Ludington and how they hadn’t talked an ounce of football. It’s one of several touching moments from a Saturday that started at 3 a.m. and ended at 10:16 p.m. in Kalamazoo.
The veterans and their guardians were able to participate in the Honor Flight for free through Talons Out Michigan. They were selected based on priority in World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans or those who are terminally ill.
Former Lions to accept the 19-plus hour commitment were Lomas Brown, Herman Moore, Jim Arnold, Pete Chryplewicz, Garry Cobb, Ken Dallafior, Doug English, Andre Fluellen, Eddie Murray and Corey Schlesinger.
This is the story of our journey.
3:30 a.m.: There are already lines of veterans checking in at the airport, gathering lanyards that will determine their groups for the remainder of the venture. American flags are on display in every direction. Families are saying goodbye, some with tears in their eyes from happiness, or perhaps waking up between 1:30 and 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
Veterans are taking photos in front of a backdrop with their assigned guardian. These guardians are either a family member, one of 10 former Lions players or a staff member from Talons Out. Everyone is paired with a partner.
Lomas Brown, Herman Moore and Cory Schlesinger are here mingling early with veterans. Some of the vets are in full military uniform, others in casual clothes, and a few are rocking Lions shirts under their new blue or gray Honor Flight jackets.
A photographer says “smile,” to which a quick-witted veteran quips back: “Do you know how early it is?”
4 a.m.: Herman Moore is still introducing himself to veterans in the boarding area before turning to me and saying “this is awesome."
I introduce myself to Korean War veteran Vern Bowling, and we exchange some small talk. Within a couple of seconds, he’s already asking me what I think the Lions need to do and why the Red Wings are so bad. We all board the flight through a tunnel of service people saluting us and holding flags in the air. It’s the first of several heartwarming welcomes/farewells for these heroes.
5:20 a.m.: I walk onto the plane, ducking my head to avoid scraping it on the ceiling. I’m greeted to an immediate “how’s the weather up there” from WWII veteran Art Lockwitz in the first row of the chartered Delta flight.
6:16 a.m.: Talons Out President Bobbie Bradley jokes for us to prepare for the slingshot type of takeoff from the short runway in Kalamazoo. We’re told to finish our McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches before launching.
7:18 a.m.: Our first water cannon salute of the day from local fire personnel greets us once we land at Reagan National Airport. It’s a far cry from the much-needed de-icing of the plane back in Michigan. It’s about 20 degrees warmer in D.C.
7:50 a.m.: We’re off the plane and greeted to a warm welcome of cheers, flag-waving, shouts of “welcome to Washington” as patriotic tunes play in the distance. It’s time to figure our next steps. We’re a little behind schedule, and the nation’s capital is about to be flooded with thousands of people for a World Series parade.
9:36 a.m.: We arrive at the World War II memorial first, and there is a rush off the bus to the Michigan section. I notice a member of our group, Jack Jones, taking a photo in front of the Texas sign while flashing the “Hook em’ horns” symbol as his son-in-law Dave Peterson mans the camera.
Jones, an Air Force veteran of both WWII and Korea, grew up in Austin, graduated from the University of Texas and then worked at Western Michigan University for 30 years. “I’ve been retired for 30 years now, too,” he says with a laugh.
10 a.m.: It’s time for the group photo in front of the fountain at the memorial. Lomas Brown is here despite needing to catch a flight to Oakland to call the Week 9 game between the Lions and Raiders. He’s not half-assing it, either. He’s all-in with his vet, Clarence Vaughn, who is in full military attire, right down to the boots.
Brown, the former All-Pro offensive lineman, is smiling and cracking jokes, making people smile. If you’ve ever been around him, you have nothing but positive experiences (unless you happen to play defensive end). His smile and laugh light up a room, and he’s entertaining the hell out of these vets by being the butt of Herman Moore’s playful jabs about him being a “little fella now."
10:20-10:32 a.m.: I catch up with Garry Cobb and veteran Kenneth Shreve. Cobb played for the Lions between 1979-84, and is currently an analyst covering the Philadelphia Eagles. We talk during the long walk along the National Mall leading up the Lincoln Memorial. The wind is hitting us off the water, but it’s a perfect fall day and nothing is slowing us down.
Shreve served in the Marines from 1963-67 while stationed mainly in Hawaii. He tells me about how much he loves seeing the World War II and Korean War veterans honored on this trip, and how he was looking forward to finding his best friend’s name, Donald Fielding, on the Vietnam Memorial wall.
He tells me he actually tried to get deployed to Vietnam after his best friend was killed in action. He says: “They wouldn’t let me go because of the clearances and the things I had seen."
“It’s just awesome to me. Incredible what these (former Lions players) are doing. They’re taking their time to recognize the veterans,” Shreve, a 75-year-old from Metro Detroit, said during the walk. “When I did join, I signed on the line to go to Vietnam or wherever they wanted to send me. When he got killed, boy I wanted to go.
“My commander said, ‘Get out of my office, you’re not going anywhere.' "
When asked what it meant to have some former Lions players on the trip, Shreve said, “I have an advantage over a lot of people, though. I saw them win a championship.”
We’re comparing mistakes on the football field to those on the battlefield along the trek. Shreve nods in an all-knowing fashion when Cobb compares the consequences between missing a blitz to that of a gun jamming in the field.
“Some of the vets come back with things, and do not want to talk about it,” Cobb, whose father served in the Army during the Korean War, says. “There are vets walking around when some of their buddies might have died.”
There were more than a handful of immediate connections, and I walked right into another one with Cobb and Shreve.
“It means something because, of course, you’re out there playing football and making good money and people are making a big deal out of you and everything,” Cobb, the former linebacker, said. “You realize that we have a lot of people that nobody says anything about, who really gave up a lot more.”
10:40 a.m.: Now walking down to the Vietnam Memorial on a personal mission after speaking to Shreve about his own. My father asked me to find his old neighbor’s name engraved on the long-winding wall. And there it is, panel E37, line 49: Melvin John Byers of Tustin, Mich.
It’s a name I’ve heard leave my father’s mouth, my grandfather’s mouth, my uncles’ mouths. Now it lives for another generation.
The sheer volume of names, the sight of hundreds of veterans finding their brothers in arms, is an emotional moment.
12:25 p.m.: Now at the FDR Memorial, Lomas Brown is pushing a wheelchair with his veteran, Dr. Clarence Vaughn. I catch up with them just as the 90-year-old Air Force veteran is doing a spot-on FDR impression.
“We will end this war," Vaughn says in that iconic Mid-Atlantic accent. It takes a moment to hit us what just happened, and everyone cracks up laughing once it hits.
1:15 p.m.: I walk past Andre Fluellen doing 25 push-ups on the sidewalk as his veteran, Jim Adkins, counts out loud. This marks the second time I’ve seen the former defensive lineman doing push-ups at his newfound friend’s orders.
2:30 p.m.: After our longest drive of the day, thanks to parade traffic, we make it to the Women’s Military Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery. I find myself alone at the grave of U.S. Army Officer Timothy Maude, who perished in the 9/11 attacks at the Pentagon. A quick trip up to President William Howard Taft’s grave site, and it’s time to load back on our bus.
From the number of gravestones to the recognizable names to the pristine conditions of the site, this is one stop where everyone stops talking and takes everything in.
2:45 p.m.: Our police escort has arrived from the World Series parade. Oddly enough, it’s U.S. Park Police Motorcycle Officer Larry Holmes, who happens to be the cousin of Andre Fluellen. He’s a favorite of the Talons Out staff for coming to their rescue while navigating the logistical nightmares of D.C.
3:10 p.m.: One of the highlights of the day is a conversation with Andre Fluellen and Jim Adkins in front of the Iwo Jima statue. Adkins served in the Army in Vietnam, and said he and Fluellen clicked from the moment they met at a guardian-veteran dinner the previous night.
“It’s the greatest. I mean, I’ve had a lot of things happen to me, special things, but this is right on the top of the list because it’s unexpected," the Battle Creek native says. "When you get here, you don’t expect it. To meet someone like this gentleman, I can’t explain how great it is. I hope we always have a good relationship between us.
“I mean, I think we’re not going to be done. I think we’ll always be friends.”
Fluellen chimes in: “Oh yeah, absolutely.” The two say they never talked football, and instead focused on their families and spent time getting to know each other.
“It’s just amazing. He won’t tell you. He won’t call himself a hero, but, of course, we call him a hero. He’s been asked to come on this trip three times, and he’s always deferred it to somebody else,” Fluellen says. "That’s just the type of people that we’re around. It’s just super special to be around somebody like that. So, it means the world to me. It means the world to me. I can actually look through his eyes. We’re at the Vietnam Memorial, he served in Vietnam and had some memories come up. It’s just strange how I can almost picture what he was seeing through his eyes. It’s amazing to me.
“Personally, I’m just so honored that the Lions would allow me to be here, that’s No. 1. And No. 2, I made a new best friend. That’s the way I look at it. I mean, seriously.”
Tears start streaming down the Vietnam veteran’s cheeks as he describes his thought process behind declining the invitation.
“I didn’t deserve it, still don’t. There are more people out there who deserve it more than me. I hope they get the opportunity. I want to help other veterans get here,” Adkins says, the former defensive lineman patting him on the shoulder.
After this tear-filled talk, I draw a giant star and heart with the word “LEDE” in all caps on my notebook. It’s a raw, authentic moment I’ll never forget.
6:15 p.m.: Back at the airport, Cory Schlesinger is still signing autographs for veterans as we sit in the terminal, smiling and chatting with each of them. The former fullback known for breaking facemasks has shown his lighter side all day and isn’t slowing down.
7:25 p.m.: While in the air and able to remove seat belts, the Talons Out staff surprises each veteran with a “Mail Call.” Each of the 79 servicemen on the flight receives a package with a year’s worth of letters thanking them for their sacrifices. It’s awesome to see the red carpet rolled out for these men. I sit back in my seat, extend my long legs in the emergency exit row as I realize I just visited D.C. for the first time with 79 veterans of three wars.
8:35 p.m.: Back in Kalamazoo, it’s about 30 degrees cooler as firetrucks salute our flight with another siren-filled water cannon.
8:50 p.m.: Making our way off the plane, there’s another tunnel of servicemen saluting us. There are screams of “welcome home,” salutes, handshakes and tears as local military, fire, emergency, police, county and VFW personnel welcome the veterans home in grand fashion.
9:30 p.m.: After loading onto school buses for one last surprise, we arrive at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo to the biggest fanfare of the day. We get here after a massive escort of 15-20 police and fire trucks with lights blaring, giving us all a much-needed second wind after riding a roller-coaster of a day.
Police officials say there are 1,000 people inside creating a human parade route full of cheers, signs, and more salutes and handshakes.
“I’m going to remember that I met an outstanding person and special individual that there’s a lot to learn from," says Herman Moore, still pushing around veteran David Moore. "I think our country owes these men a lot of gratitude. One thing that David mentioned is that he went in when he was 19 and he’s 69 now. That’s 50 years. A little bit behind, but better late than never.”
David Moore said he struggled with the Vietnam Memorial as that’s where he served with some of those names. Despite this, he says this is a day he’s waited 50 years for.
10:16 p.m.: We’re back at the airport and done with the trip. All going our separate ways, for now.
Talons Out Michigan is a non-profit based in Kalamazoo that works to honor veterans with all-expenses-paid trips to Washington D.C. The group is a national organization with several chapters. The Lions have donated more than $13 million to support organizations like Talons Out dating to 1991, according to a press release.