ASHEBORO — Three Randolph County men celebrated Veterans Day in a special way. They were guests on the first Triad Honor Flight in 10 years.
The Triad Honor Flight carried 95 veterans to Washington, D.C., on Nov. 11, 2011, exactly 10 years since the last flight from the Piedmont. Along with veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were guardians as well as hosts. The American Airlines jet left Piedmont Triad International Airport and landed at Reagan International in D.C.
From Randolph County were Buster Smith and Bill Fogleman from the Korean era and Willie Cox, who served in Vietnam. Their guardians were Buster’s son, Revis; Bill’s son, Al; and Willie’s daughter, Kerri Cox Lindley. The three and Lindley met at Fogleman’s home on Dec. 9 to talk about the trip.
Smith and Fogleman are lifelong friends, having met as schoolkids. They reported to the Army on Oct. 15, 1954, the same day that Hurricane Hazel hit the Carolina coast.
Smith and Fogleman were split up for basic training with Smith serving in Puerto Rico and Kansas while Fogleman was shipped to France as a cryptologist. Cox joined the Navy in 1966 and served as a Seabee in Vietnam, erecting buildings for the Army and Marines, "12 hours a day, seven days a week."
All three were impressed with the organizers of the Honor Flight, which is sponsored by a nonprofit that provides the flights and bus rides, as well as all the conveniences, free of charge to the veterans.
“I thought it was great, well-organized,” Cox said. “They took care of us.”
“They told us which bus to ride in and we stayed in that one,” Fogleman said.
“And we didn’t have to fight!” Smith quipped.
Lindley said the veterans were “treated first class and thanked for their service.” She said water cannons were sprayed over the plane as it prepared to take off and again when it returned to PTI.
On the plane, she said, “Everybody was like-minded and made conversation with anybody.” Cox said he talked to a fellow Seabee and also another man who served in Vietnam. The Vietnam veteran, he said, said when he returned from Southeast Asia, people threw things at him. “The man cried like a baby (during the Honor Flight) and said it was the first time people thanked him.”
Smith agreed, saying a Vietnam soldier “cried with the welcome they got. He said when he returned from Vietnam, he was spit on.”
At Washington, the group was bused to the Mall, where they visited the World War II Memorial, the Iwo Jima statue of the famed flag-raising, a memorial to the Air Force, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Wall and the Roosevelt Memorial.
Cox said he hadn’t been to the nation’s capital in 30 years and “was surprised how much it had grown. “They’ve added several memorials. I was impressed with the Vietnam Wall — all those names (of those killed) on it.”
Lindley said that when the group was leaving Washington. the veterans were given mail from around the country, letters from children thanking them for their service. They also received boxes with thank-you cards, gift cards and other items.
Arriving back at PTI, the veterans were greeted by a crowd welcoming them home, clapping and shouting “USA!”
Lindley said that prior to the flight, she “thought it would be a sad day, but it wasn’t. It was patriotic. The oldest veteran was 100, almost 101.
“It’s pretty life-changing,” she said.
Her father said, “It was a great event. I never dreamed about going. You don’t know what it means ’til you go.”
Smith joked that the “reason for chaperones is we take orders.” But he added, “It would be really nice if everybody could go. It’s well worth the time.”
Fogleman said the flight made him reflect on his own service: “I’m proud of being there. It made me feel good. I’m glad I got in the military to give myself for my country.”