The Dawes County Honor Flight will reach a milestone next week when veterans take off on the 10th trip planned by the local organization.
Honor Flight 10 will depart Chadron Nov. 1, taking 12 veterans to Washington, D.C., to view the monuments and memorials. There will be a send-off ceremony at 9 a.m. at the Chadron American Legion, with the group slated to leave town around 10 a.m. The public is invited to come out and help send them off on their trip.
The Dawes County-based Honor Flights began in 2012, spearheaded by Rob Wahlstrom and Marty Connealy, who raised funds to take 10 veterans to Washington, D.C., on that first trip. The program took off from there, and including the Honor Flight 10 group, will have sent more than 120 veterans to the nation’s capital, all accompanied by guardians – usually family members. The trips are fully funded by donations.
In 2016, the local program, which had been sending veterans as part of the national Honor Flight program’s Lone Eagle series, made the move to be named a regional hub for the national flights. The group incorporated as a non-profit, making it eligible for additional funding and in-kind contributions.
The 10th trip has 11 veterans signed up, and one guardian is also a veteran for a total of 12.
Richard McKay of Hay Springs is a career Navy veteran, having served from 1969-1990. He joined the Navy with no intention of making it his career, however.
“One enlistment ended up in another and another one. Pretty soon I had 12 years in and figured I might as well finish it out,” he said.
“I’ve been as far north as Anchorage, Ala., as far west as Hong Kong, as far south as the Straits of Magellan, and as far east as Turkey,” he said.
He’s visited 20 ports in the Mediterranean, around the South American continent and to West Africa, all while serving on seven different vessels including the USS Coral Sea from 1972-1973.
He worked in food service, cooking for as few as 50-75 Navy personnel and for as many as 5,000.
“My forte was baking the desserts,” he said.
One of the most striking things he remembers from his Navy career occurred while they were in port at Lome, Togo in West Africa. The Navy was there to observe humanitarian programs like the Peace Corps. When they made a stop for refreshments, there was a young boy, no more than 15 or 16 years old, who couldn’t walk. Still, he managed to get up the eight to 10 steps into the building where they were “with a smile on his face and waving at everybody.”
“That just got me. We think we have problems,” McKay said.
He also enjoyed his year and a half in Scotland, with his Scottish-Irish heritage, and said his time on a submarine tender in Danoon showed him that it is the only place where it can rain, hail, sleet and snow with the sun shining in one day.
On the flip side, he recalls often standing on the flight deck in the evenings when there weren’t any flight operations taking place and watching the explosions inland, wondering whether his brother Gloyd, who was in Vietnam with the Marines, was okay.
McKay expects the trip to the memorials to serve as an emotional connection to all of the soldiers who have died, remarking that his visit to Pearl Harbor did the same.
“I feel that loss,” he said. The Honor Flight will give him the opportunity to honor them.
“It still stirs me, knowing what they’ve been through.”
Roland Molitor, also of Hay Springs, was in the Marines for four years and in the Army for three years. He served as a heavy equipment instructor with the Marines. He planned to re-enlist after his initial four-year commitment but knew if he did he was headed to Vietnam and didn’t want to put his family, particularly his wife, through that.
He also wanted to be stationed in Germany and the only way to accomplish that was to enlist in the Army. He drove tanks for the Army briefly before becoming a master gunner and eventually a tank commander.
The upcoming Honor Flight will allow him to honor the military service tradition in his family. His father served in World War II, and five brothers were also in the military, as were many other extended family members of both of his parents.
Terry Murdoff of Alliance served in the Navy from 1963-1967 and was stationed at the NAS Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla. He was air crew member on a P3A recon plan, operating the radar. Murdoff logged more than 2,400 hours of flight time, covering much of the U.S., two trips to Bermuda for six to eight months each, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, where he flew night patron in the Gulf of Tonkin to protect U.S. carriers.
While in Bermuda he recalls being ordered to launch one day. In the air within 30 minutes, the crew flew 14 hours and were nearly out of fuel when they landed. Another time, while in the Bermuda Triangle, their plan lost its navigation, and they had to go up to 30,000 feet to find Bermuda on the radar. On Christmas Day in 1966, while flying over the Gulf of Tonkin, he captured a picture of a Navy frigate and a Russian trawler “exchanging Christmas greetings” from about 300 yards apart.
Murdoff said his time in the Navy also took him to Spain, Norway, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan and Taiwan.
As it will for Molitor, the trip to Washington, D.C., will allow Murdoff to pay tribute to family members who have served in the military. Three uncles served in World War II, his wife lost a cousin in Vietnam, and two of his brothers were also military.
Ben and Pam Rivera of Crawford will finally make their trip on the Honor Flight. They were scheduled to take the trip earlier, but that one was postponed due to logistical problems. Pam, who is acting as Ben’s guardian on the trip, is also a veteran, having served as a medic at Fort Sill, Okla., from 1973-1974. She worked in the hospital there.
Ben served 27 years in the Army, stationed all over the U.S., and taking tours in Germany and Korea. He also served in Desert Storm in Iraq and retired while at Fort Carson, Colo. He grew up in a farming community, unable to attend college.
“I saw (the Army) as an opportunity to learn and also to serve my country,” he said. Later, it continued to provide support for his young family.
He served as a helicopter pilot and said he loved the work he did.
Both Ben and Pam are excited to be able to share the Honor Flight with other veterans and enjoy their camaraderie and stories.
James Kearns of Rushville served in the Army from 1958-1960, stationed on the East Coast with the U.S. Air Defense.
“We had seven missile sites,” he said.
Kearns worked in the motor pool, serving as a driver for the colonel for six to eight months before becoming a dispatcher. He volunteered for the draft and also spent six or seven years in the National Guard after he was discharged.
“It was just part of your duty,” he said.
He is looking forward to seeing the memorials with his son, who is serving as his guardian, and several friends from Rushville and Hay Springs.
Russell “Pete” Kendle of Alliance was on active duty for three of the six years he served with the Marine Corps, where he worked as an aviation electrician. He was stationed with the Marine Air Wing in North Carolina before and after his year-long tour in Vietnam.
He worked as an electrician before and after the war for the railroad, and said he enlisted because he didn’t want to be drafted. He’s interested in seeing the World War II Memorial, but noted that the trip to the Vietnam Wall will likely be difficult for him.
Richard Lee of Gering served in the Army from 1970-1973, with plans to make it his career. A back injury he sustained when he fell off a personnel carrier in Germany forced him out of the Army, however. He fought the discharge but lost. While in Germany, he was listed as a field medic corpsman, and he spent his tour driving the 577 personnel carrier and ambulances.
Pat Shald served in the Army from 1964-1966, stationed at Fort Riley, Kans., as an artillery survey man, determining coordinates for the big guns.
Also taking part in Honor Flight 10 will be William Piercy of Chadron, David Ivarson of Chadron and John Krotz of Rushville. They were unable to be reached by press time.