My many years in Washington, D.C. have taught me that British author Samuel Johnson’s words, “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” ring true. Johnson was referring to false patriotism and there is certainly no dearth of that in political Washington.
Recently, however, I got to see real patriotism up close. I was so overwhelmed, I could not stop tearing up. I was in our nation's capital at the airport, where I was a bit early for a flight. I was focused on where I was going to get the best cup of coffee. I had already cleared security and to my astonishment where I got to my gate there were people lined up holding American flags, intensely watching the gate’s ramp.
Then I saw the sign for the “Honor Flight Network.” A flight was coming in from Greensboro, North Carolina filled with WWII veterans.
There were flowers, signs and a fifteen-person barbershop vocal group.
I was transfixed when, a few minutes later, these veterans got off the plane. The barbershop singers serenaded the group with songs representing each service ("From the Halls of Montezuma" to "Anchors Away" and others along with "America the Beautiful." The veterans got off the flight one by one.
Each veteran was greeted with a hug and the words, "thank you for your service.” Once these vets walked by the musicians they saw a small crowd of people clapping and thanking each veteran for their service.
Most of the veterans shook the hand of each person who greeted them; a few saluted the musicians as they walked or where wheeled by. -- Tears were in their eyes too. When these men and women sign up for an "honor flight" they have no idea that they are going to get this kind of reception.
The rest of the day the group would be given tours of the World War II memorial, the Iwo Jima memorial as well as the Korean Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial Wall and other Washington sights.
I have since been told that each honor flight is greeted music and hugs and cheers.
Not all veterans were white men. I counted three women who had been nurses during the war and one African-American who served in the then-segregated service in London during the war. There was no segregation now, they were all vets coming to be honored and seeing their Memorials.
As I face the final quarter of my life, I realize how important these flights are. The sacrifice these men and woman made is astonishing to me. Many of these same veterans lost friends as well as relatives. At the time, no one understood PTSD and many of them had to deal with memories, bad dreams and the difficult readjustment to civilian life on their own.
One man on the flight, who spontaneously decided to join the singers, told me he came not only to see the Memorials but also to hear the stories of other veterans.
I only began to understand how important these kind of visitations are when I was in Poland last year. While I was there, I met a Christian man who has made it his life’s work to preserve the memory and artifacts of the Warsaw Ghetto. At age 91 he has received many awards for his work. He has even received an award from the Yad Vasham Memorial in Israel but has never been to there. Like the American veterans I met recently he has many stories and needs -- and deserves -- the sense of completion and recognition that “The Honor Flight Network” has been able to give to our “greatest generation.” Several people are working to get him to Israel for that honor.
The WWII generation deserves everything we can do for them. These veterans had no expectation that they would be honored in this way sixty some years later. They did it for us, selflessly. That is an honor to all of us.
Ellen Ratner is Washington bureau chief of Talk Radio News Service and a Fox News contributor.