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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Honorable Admiration

Wayne Geurin walks back and forth in his garden, tending to the tomatoes he plants. He gives many of them away, showing his devotion to serving others. But one small detail about him displays a different type of service.

He wears a cap that reads, “Seabees,” representing his time serving the Navy Seabees. As a member of the 61st Battalion in the Philippines, he helped repair landing strips during World War II. On May 30, he and some of his fellow veterans had the opportunity to be recognized the way they deserve.

Honor Flight of Southern Indiana is one of nearly 140 hubs in the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization that honors veterans for their sacrifices. Through donations and volunteers, a group of 70 veterans and their chaperones fly on a US Airways Airbus A320 airplane to visit the war memorials in Washington, D.C. Honor Flight board members, medics, a photographer, and a videographer accompany the service men and women.

The new hub serves Crawford, Daviess, Dubois, Gibson, Knox, Lawrence, Martin, Orange, Perry, Pike, Posey, Spencer, Vanderburgh, and Warrick counties. Priority is given to World War II veterans due to their limited number — Geurin, 89, was one of the youngest participants.

The first flight from Evansville, which took place last October, served as an extension of the Indianapolis hub. On that trip was Samuel Powers, a 91-year-old Army Infantry veteran stationed in Europe during World War II. He had a strong desire to visit the monuments and was impressed with everything he saw, thanks to the Honor Flight Network.

“Those people are so dedicated,” says Powers. “It was such a wonderful trip. Everyone appreciated it so much.”

Honor Flight of Southern Indiana was officially established on April 8 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony presented by Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke. The May 30 voyage was the inaugural flight, a day Winnecke declared as “Honor Flight of Southern Indiana Day.”

Ashley Gregg, founder and vice president of Honor Flight of Southern Indiana, first contacted Dianna Page, the director of marketing and air service development at Evansville Regional Airport, about bringing the network to Evansville. Page did not think twice about the proposition.

“When I found out they had started that process, we wanted to do everything we could to help make it happen,” says Page.

Gregg then spoke to many local businesses in an effort to fundraise for the new chapter. She says the support was phenomenal, and it has continued.

“It is a community effort,” says Gregg. “It would not be possible without the volunteers and the community. People do not hesitate to help.”

Because it is a nonprofit organization, Honor Flight of Southern Indiana relies heavily on its volunteers. More than half are veterans who want their fellow comrades to experience this life-changing event.

“Southern Indiana is what we call ‘veteran-centric,’” says Gregg, “and we love our veterans here in the area.”

Geurin was eager to spend the day with his son, Michael, a Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War. Geurin had never seen the memorials before, like many of the participants. Before experiencing Honor Flight for the first time, Geurin described his excitement.

“I am looking forward to it because I have never seen the monuments, but I don’t expect to see any names I know,” said Geurin. “This will be my last and only chance to see these monuments.”

The festivities began with dinner at Tropicana Evansville on Thursday, May 28, attended by Winnecke and Congressman Larry Bucshon. The travelers received a detailed description of what to expect on their visit, calming any nerves about flying.

During the trip, the group made three main stops at the National World War II Memorial, the Lincoln, Vietnam Veterans, and Korean War Veterans Memorials, and the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. They also saw other landmarks, such as the Iwo Jima Memorial, on a bus tour.
Originally hailing from Kentucky, Powers’ favorite aspect was taking a picture in front of the state’s pillar at the National World War II Memorial. Gregg treasured seeing the excitement shown throughout the trip.

“The thing that stood out was how people had smiles plastered on their faces all day,” says Gregg. “These veterans never expected to get to do anything like this. They were just so happy to see their memorials.”

Members of Honor Flight of Southern Indiana printed out blown-up pictures of the veterans to display their service days. There also were 70 wheelchairs donated, among many other surprises they cherished.

Possibly the paramount aspect of the day was landing back in Evansville. The organization coordinated “Operation Homecoming,” at which thousands of cheering fans were waving flags and holding signs in the terminal. Featuring a 1940s theme, it gave the veterans the experience of being welcomed home when they returned from the war.

“This gives them that opportunity to be thanked and to see the patriotism and people that care,” says Gregg.

Many of the attendees were children, some of whom may not have understood the significance of what the veterans sacrificed. Gregg says it is up to the Honor Flight Network to continue teaching them the importance of honoring heroes.

“There is so much for the kids,” she says. “The next generation needs to know that these people saved the world and that they’re important.”

Having to account for the influx of supporters, Page assured the logistics functioned as scheduled. She says it is rewarding to see all the effort and enthusiasm pay off when the event is successful.

“It’s a really good example of how our community can pull together for a good cause,” says Page. “No matter where you’re from or what your background is, you can support it.”

Geurin appreciated the organization providing him this chance of a lifetime. He believes it means as much to everyone else as it does to the veterans.

“I think the community certainly appreciates it,” says Geurin. “The city and the county do this to show their appreciation for what the men and women did.”
Geurin did not know what to expect heading into the festivities but said being in the presence of those with similar backgrounds as him was exciting.

“I am a lot more enthused about being with people my age who also served,” says Geurin. “I do enjoy hearing them talking about their experiences.”

Honor Flight of Southern Indiana has brought a new appreciation of veterans to the area, while highlighting the connection that Evansville has to World War II. During the war, the city was a vital focus of production, building P-47 Thunderbolt aircrafts and landing ship, tanks. The USS LST-325 still calls Evansville home, now serving as a museum.

Numerous men and women, like Geurin and Powers, sacrificed greatly to serve the country during its times of war. Many were not recognized as they stepped back onto American soil, but Honor Flight of Southern Indiana is attempting to rectify the past by giving them an overdue welcome. And it certainly has impacted the veterans.

“It puts a closure on your life,” says Powers. “I’m so proud of the people who organized and put this together. I think it’s a wonderful thing to do.”

Gregg is thrilled she can be involved as well. Along with Powers, several have shared just how meaningful this experience is to them.

“This is one of the greatest days of their lives,” she says, “next to getting married and having kids.”

For more information about Honor Flight of Southern Indiana and the next flight on Oct. 24, call 812-297-4136 or visit honorflightsi.org.

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