Pryor resident Ray Gwartney just returned from the Oklahoma Honor Flight, a whirlwind trip from start to finish.
After hearing several friends talk about the life-changing trip, Gwartney decided it was his turn. He filled out the necessary paperwork and was quickly accepted. Gwartney was Washington D.C bound.
Oklahoma Honor Flight provides Oklahoma veterans with a trip to the nation’s capitol to visit war memorials, all in one day.
Gwartney packed his bags and headed to Tulsa to meet other veterans going on this trip.
He excitedly described the farewell ceremony. The 85 veterans, including four women, were met at the auditorium by Pryor Thunderbird Cadets. Each veteran was handed a pocket-sized copy of the United States Constitution. The veterans sat through what Gwartney called the normal procedures, the pledge of allegiance and singing the national anthem. A founder of the Honor Flight then led the veterans in an exchange ceremony.
The veterans raised their left hand, holding the constitution. The cadets followed suit and raised their left hands. As the two reached across to shake hands, and pass the constitution from one generation to the next, the cadets slipped commemorative gold coins into the hand of the veterans.
Gwartney said the group left the hotel at
3 a.m. the next morning, after being escorted to the airport by the Tulsa Police Department, Oklahoma Highway Patrol and Patriot Riders motorcycle group.
The group’s first stop upon landing was the memorial Gwartney was most looking forward to seeing, the World War II memorial. He said it was “almost unreal” to finally be seeing the monument in person.
“There was a building-like structure, if you can call it that, on either end. One said Pacific and the other said Atlantic. Between the two were concrete pillars, one for each state of the union,” he said.
He described two bronze eagles inside the Pacific building, which seem to be supporting the ceiling.
“It was truly magnificent,” he said.
His favorite part of the WWII Memorial was spotted by his grandson Shane Davis, Gwartney’s guardian for the trip, on the way back to the bus.
“The grandson found the part you see in this picture here. It says Southwest Pacific, Guadalcanal, that’s where I spent my time,” said Gwartney.
Gwartney enlisted in the United States Army in October 1952. He was in the quartermaster’s supply division, in the truck regiment.
“I was in for about three years,” he said.
“It was three years, two months and six days,” his wife Billye added.
The veterans, all wearing blue, boarded buses and headed to the Lincoln Monument. Gwartney was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the iconic monument.
“OK, I’m going to exaggerate a little bit here. From where I was standing on the street, up to the monument seemed to me like hundreds of stairs,” he said. “Grandson wanted to run up the stairs to the top, of course. He asked me ‘Grandpa do you want to go with me?’ I said no, no thank you.
“The size of the Arlington Cemetery was another thing that really surprised me,” he said. “It’s large, and then larger and then even bigger on top of that.”
Looking over pictures he took of the cemetery, Gwartney recounted its history.
“I’ll give you a little bit of the history, if you want it,” he started. “At the beginning of the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee of the southern army was asked to be a general of the Union Army. He could not accept because he lived in Virginia, which was part of the south. This was his property before it became the Arlington Cemetery. At the end of the war, they took his property to make the cemetery. Well, some time after that his son was able to get the property back, but then he turned around and sold it to the government for $100,000.”
The next stop on the tour was the Korea
War Veteran Memorial, southeast of the Lincoln Memorial.
The Korean tableau features statues of soldiers scattered throughout a garden area. There are 19 life-sized stone statues of patrolmen, armed and at the ready.
The statues are reflected on the memorial wall adjacent to the garden. The reflection makes the appearance 38 soldiers, representing the 38th parallel.
The tribute wall, bearing the words “Freedom is Not Free,” was another highlight of the trip for Gwartney, who said it wasn’t what he expected but was quite moving.
“We got to see the changing of the guards. The grandson just couldn’t get over that. It meant a lot to get to see it,” said Gwartney.
“You know, when they do this they take 21 steps to the end where they stand for 21 seconds. They switch their rifle over to the other shoulder and take 21 steps back,” he said. “This is where the 21-gun salute came from.”
Gwartney said there were countless people piled in to watch
this ceremony, but all were perfectly quiet and reverent.
“It was very respectful and precise. Army to the core,” he said. “It was touching, it really was.”
Gwartney said the individuals chosen for the honor guard are the most elite.
“They can’t drink or smoke or use bad language. Physically they have to be between
5-feet 10 and 6-feet 4 and they can’t exceed a 30-inch waistline,” said Gwartney, who ran drills in his time.
After roughly nine hours of touring D.C, the group made their way back home with pictures, stories, souvenirs and new friendships.
“It was about 8:30 p.m. our time that we headed back to Tulsa. We flew back and were met with storms and tornado sirens. The pilot had to circle around and land at 11 p.m.” he said.
“There was a reception group waiting for us there,” Gwartney said, his smile growing.
“There was a band, a group of home school kids who played,” said Billye.
“There were soldiers in uniform, and all this was a surprise for us vets. Everyone applauded as we came in, people were thanking us for our service,” he said.
“I was a preacher for 17 years and even I don’t have words to express the emotion of this trip, or that reception,” he said.
“I would encourage all Oklahoma vets to go on this trip. You’ll never