It just was supposed to be a 20-minute bathroom stop at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., but for a busload of Augusta-area veterans, it turned out to be so much more.
I know because I was on that bus. And I’ll forever be grateful to Doug Hastings that I was.
Hastings, a retired U.S. Army sergeant major, has been organizing free veterans’ bus trips to our nation’s capital for the past eight years. He gives top priority to World War II veterans who may not otherwise have the chance to see the impressive World War II Memorial opened in 2004.
In recent years – due to many World War II veterans not being able to make the trip or having to cancel at the last minute – he has expanded his applicants to include Korea and Vietnam veterans who can go.
Because I have been giving Hastings copies of my books in recent years to give away during the trips and because I’m a Vietnam veteran, he asked me to go along and give some talks to help pass the time on the one-way 10-hourtrips there and back.
This was Hastings’ 18th bus trip taking veterans to D.C. He also in recent years has been taking veterans to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
Private sponsors pay for the participants’ transportation and two-night hotel stay. Participants pay for their own food. Each veteran can take a traveling companion.
Hastings estimated he has taken 720 people on his trips, not counting the one a few weeks ago. He estimates about 70 of those travelers have since died.
Our bus load consisted of 15 World War II veterans, five Vietnam veterans, one Korean War veteran, another Korean veteran who also served in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, one U.S. Army Reserve veteran who served during Vietnam, each of the veterans’ designated traveling companion, four support trip members, one nurse, Hastings and the bus driver.
I had been on previous trips to D.C. with friends and family members. But there is nothing like taking a trip to D.C. with fellow veterans and their emotional baggage. Tons of tears were shed.
That began on Saturday morning, April 28, while passing through the gates of Arlington Cemetery and seeing hillside after hillside of the thousands of white tombstones perfectly aligned in row after row as far as you can see. More than 300,000 veterans and others are buried there.
Many more emotional and heart-wrenching experiences came about during the trip.
On Sunday morning, our group members walked two blocks to take photos in front of the White House fence and were surprised to see so many tourists and others taking our photos at the same time.
One young woman nearby sobbed uncontrollably while being held by her male companion. Something about seeing the senior veterans in our party with their VFW and other service caps (some using canes, two or three in wheelchairs) apparently touched her heart.
I walked over and took her hand and said, “Thank you for caring.” She was so broken up she could only nod in response.
We were to head home after the White House photos, but several ladies in our group wanted to stop at a nice restroom. So Hastings directed the driver to head for the restrooms next to the World War II Memorial.
It was about 10 a.m. Sunday, and there was a light scattering of people when we disembarked for what was only to be a 20-minute stop.
Some of us noticed a group of about 60 young kids bunched up with a leader in front of them not far away. We heard applause and thought it was for a presentation about the memorial.
But then they burst into cheers and continued applauding while looking straight at us, and we realized these young kids were showing respect for us. They wanted photos taken with the World War II veterans.
They turned out to be an eighth-grade social studies class from Blue Mountain Middle School in Orwigsburg, Pa. Their leader was their teacher, Joe Muldowney, a dedicated marathon runner (author of the book Running Shorts) who had served as mayor of nearby Pottsville, Pa.
He told us that he had a daughter in Charleston, S.C., and a son serving in the U.S. Marines at Camp Lejuene, N.C.
Our group talked all the way home about those incredibly respectful young students and how much they had touched our hearts.
When I got back to my office Monday morning, I found an e-mail Muldowney had written about 11 p.m. Sunday when he had returned home.
It said in part, “Don, today was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Having my students meet these heroes of the Greatest Generation was a thrill for all of us.”
I e-mailed him on Monday and he wrote back, “Our students are abuzz today about their experiences yesterday. Our area of Pennsylvania has had a long history of military volunteerism. We are also honored to have been the birthplace of General George Joulwan, former NATO Commander in the ’90s.”
He closed saying, “At our school, we always conduct special classes on Veterans’ Day, and most of our students have had a family member who has served. They did consider the men and women they met yesterday to be superstars.”
If you would like to help finance Hastings’ future trips for veterans or want to apply for a trip, call him at (706) 832-6483 or write to Vets to Washington Project, 3709 Fairington Drive, Hephzibah, GA 30815. For more information, visit vetstowashington.com.
And one side note: My American Legion Post 71 in North Augusta is having The Augusta Chronicle’s new president Dana Atkins as our keynote Memorial Day speaker at 11 a.m. Monday, May 28. The recently retired three-star Air Force general and former Thunderbirds left wingman will speak at the veterans’ park on Georgia Avenue in downtown North Augusta. Hope you can make it. Happy Memorial Day and thanks for caring!