Finally Home

HonorAir Knoxville Team | Photo by Nathan Sparks

Veterans experience a day like no other on an HonorAir Knoxville flight

Standing near the intersection of the two sloping, black-granite walls that form the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, on a sunny April afternoon, Eddie Mannis searches for words to express the essence of the scene that has unfolded throughout the day and that will culminate later in a thunderous celebration at Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport.

As Mannis scans the veterans easing their way quietly, reverently along the wall, looking for the names of buddies killed in Southeast Asia all those decades ago—some pausing to kneel or to reach high to pencil-etch a name on a white sheet of paper—he whispers, “To be part of this means so much. Every time we’re here, we say, ‘Wow, this is life-changing for these veterans, and also for those of us who get to be with them.’ After every flight, veterans will come up to me and say, ‘I’m finally home.’”

Mannis founded HonorAir Knoxville (HA) in 2007 to do just that: to extend honor and appreciation to military veterans while helping them experience a measure of catharsis and closure. In those 17 years, the organization has flown some 4,200 vets from throughout East Tennessee to the nation’s capital to enjoy a day-long cascade of respectful remembrance.

Photos courtesy of Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority

Mannis, who founded Prestige Cleaners in 1985, was an established business and community leader when his friend Jeff Miller invited him to join an HonorAir flight from Asheville, NC, in May 2007.

“He said he thought it was something we might like to do in Knoxville,” Mannis recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect. I was a volunteer escort for three veterans. I was so moved that I came back and started HonorAir Knoxville, and in October of 2007 we took our first flight.”

What continues to motivate Mannis and many others on the team, he says, are “the stories we hear over and over, the lives changed. The wife of one veteran who went with us came to the reunion breakfast [a follow-up event several weeks after each flight] and said, ‘Eddie, I just want to tell you, I don’t know the man that you brought back. Every night he would have nightmares, and he would wake up feeling like he was back in combat.’ She told me, ‘That doesn’t happen anymore.’”

The heartbeat of each HonorAir trip, Mannis adds, “is the experience they have with each other: the camaraderie, sharing the stories that only their brother or sister knows what it’s like. That’s why we’re adamant that each flight is only the veterans, no spouses. That allows the participants to bond with each other and feel what it was like back in combat together.”

And so on this April 10, 2024, HonorAir’s 32nd flight is set to bring 130-plus veterans to Washington—representing Knoxville, Chattanooga, Crossville, and surrounding areas—along with HA staff and volunteers, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs (his first HonorAir trip), and two members of the media—Cityview publisher Nathan Sparks and your intrepid military reporter.

Of the veterans on the manifest, one served in World War II, four in Korea, and 128 in Vietnam. All of them are ready to embark on a packed itinerary that also includes the Air Force Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the Marine Corps War Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the World War II Memorial.

Just after 6 a.m., McGhee Tyson buzzes with anticipation as veterans arrive and introduce themselves, taking group photos, and then moving to the departure gate. Before boarding, they are greeted by Mannis, who thanks all who make HonorAir possible, including American Airlines; by Joe Sutter, USAF retired, an HonorAir volunteer and a board member of Covenant Health, a key HonorAir partner; by a proclamation from Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon; and by Knox County Mayor Jacobs, who speaks of his military upbringing and his father’s 21-year Navy and Air Force career.

Photos by Nathan Sparks and Tim Doyle

“Thank God we have people like him and like you, willing to put their lives on the line for our freedom,” says Jacobs, who then shakes every hand as each vet boards the plane.

Already the honorees see indicators of what lies ahead: ground crew members waving flags and clapping as the plane begins taxiing, two fire trucks blasting a water salute over the aircraft from either side, and the captain taking to the PA to say how grateful he is to be at the controls on such a momentous day.

Upon landing at Reagan National, the plane is bathed in another water salute, followed by a ground crew member waving a large American flag, and a “Welcome Veterans!” banner stretched across the jetway. As the group boards four buses to begin their whirlwind tour, the excitement is palpable.

“I could cry at how much this means already,” says Gail Davenport, a nurse who was assigned to the USS Sanctuary hospital ship during Vietnam.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the wall for the first time,” adds fellow Vietnam vet Phil Haun.

At the Air Force Memorial, which overlooks Arlington on one side and the Pentagon on another, US Congressman Tim Burchett greets the honorees and talks with individual veterans. “This is so very special,” he tells Cityview, “and HonorAir is an incredibly important part of our community.”

Next the buses make the short jaunt to Arlington National Cemetery, where the veterans view the reverently powerful Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. After a brief stop at the Iwo Jima statue, the apex of the Marines memorial, the convoy moves on and parks just off the National Mall, equidistant between the Korea and Vietnam memorials.

It is at the latter, along that long granite wall, where most of the veterans feel the full weight of what today means. Some are first-timers, like Randall Leyshon, who has come to find and etch the name of his best friend, John Terrell. Between survivor’s guilt and his own painful processing of Vietnam, it took Leyshon all this time—and the loving but persistent prodding of his children—to work up the nerve to visit. “I am so glad I finally got here,” he says.

Another veteran, Richard Cole, has been to the memorial many times. “The first was overwhelming, but every time is emotional,” he says quietly. “I’ve got about 30 buddies on the wall—guys who had two weeks left to go [in their tour], and guys who were there a week. The emotions rise. It’s hard to see it, but I keep coming back because I want to honor their memory and all that they did for us.”

Photos by Nathan Sparks and Tim Doyle

Proceeding down the Mall to the World War II Memorial, the center of attention, fittingly, is this flight’s lone veteran from that war, Harold Fonte of Cleveland, TN. At age 97, he is escorted in his wheelchair by caregiver Rachel Brannen.

“Oh, this brings back some memories,” says Fonte, who served in 1944-45 in the Pacific, including the fierce Battle of Okinawa. “That sure was a long time ago,” he reflects, surrounded by fellow veterans extending hands and hugs in appreciation.

Many of the other honorees gather in front of the stone TENNESSEE panel of the memorial, taking photos and laughing. By this point in the day, the camaraderie rekindled among them has caught full flame, and the closeness is unmistakable.

During the flight home, fatigue has set in and the mood is quieter—until HonorAir’s Kay Kirckland takes to the PA, first to lead a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” to Eddie Mannis, and then to announce, “Before we get home, we have one more surprise. You remember ‘mail call’ from your time in the military, right? Well, we have one more very special mail call for you.”

With that, two team members walk down the center aisle distributing thick manila envelopes stuffed with cards and letters addressed to each veteran, some from their own family and friends, others from schoolchildren and volunteers.

“I didn’t get this much mail in the SERVICE!” exclaims an incredulous Richard Cornshaw, a ship’s electrician in Vietnam, as he thumbs through his stack. The joy on his face and that of the others is unforgettably moving.

Speaking of unforgettable, soon the plane descends and the time of homecoming arrives. How to describe its staggering impact? Well, you really have to be there. If you weren’t at McGhee Tyson on April 10, the good news is that you can mark your calendar for Wednesday, September 25, at 7:40 p.m., to take part in the next HonorAir flight’s celebration. You’ll be amazed.

Earlier in the day, Mannis had said, “Really, we could leave Knoxville, fly around for a while, and then land right back for the Welcome Home, and my job would be finished.” That’s how special the day’s climactic event is.

And so, as the veterans file off the plane and make their way toward the security area, the sound of band music and cheering grows louder. Rounding a corner, they behold a long tunnel of sorts, formed by soaring balloon arches stretching to the far end of the corridor. They glimpse the first of hundreds of smiling faces crammed along either side, whooping and clapping. As the heroes funnel single file into the parted sea of well-wishers, they receive handshakes, hugs, flower bouquets, Girl Scout cookies, cards, stuffed animals, and more. The crowd is mostly civilians wearing red, white, and blue, but also uniformed military personnel, ROTC students, and Scouts. A busload of middle schoolers has traveled from Meigs County sporting matching T-shirts with “Welcome Back Committee” emblazoned on the back.

Photos by Nathan Sparks and Tim Doyle

All along the way, banners and placards bob buoyantly above the crowd, bearing ebullient messages like “We Love Our Vets!” and “God Bless America” and, of course, “Welcome Home!” Meanwhile, the band—it’s the spirit-oozing UT pep band, naturally—roars out patriotic tunes, along with rousing renditions of “Rocky Top,” as the veterans slowly work their way through the line.

Many minutes later, at the end of the glorious gauntlet they traverse, their arms overflow with treats and treasures, and their faces bear a blend of stunned awe and gratitude, of first-crush wonder and beach-sunset serenity. Most can scarcely speak, and those who manage to share a few thoughts do so through sniffles and sighs, with wide eyes that convey far more than mere words ever could.

“I can’t describe it, it’s just—overwhelming emotion,” says Air Force veteran Bryan Jones, barely audible over the din of the continuing celebration behind him. “When we came home from the war…well, this is a totally different experience.”

“I’m in shock,” adds Gail Davenport, the ship’s nurse during Vietnam. “It’s so emotional. I would have served no matter what, because I love my country, but it’s so great to be appreciated like this after so long.”

“All of the support touches you,” says Army vet Eddie Graves, shaking his head with a bemused smile. “It feels really good.”

As for Alan Culvahouse, a Navy veteran, when he flew home from Vietnam in 1969, “Nobody would shake your hand. We got a lot of harassment and not much else. I just told my wife, ‘Honey, this is nothing like that.’ I’m so glad I was on that plane today. And it’s great to come home to this.”

There’s that word one more time: home—four little letters that coalesce to form one simple syllable that embodies the deepest longing in the heart of these veterans and perhaps in all of us—the longing to touch down and breathe freely in a place where we know we belong.

A place where, after far too long away, we finally feel welcomed. Finally embraced. Finally cherished. Finally honored.

Finally . . . home.   

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