When John Babcock returned home from three tours of duty in the Vietnam War, the welcome he received was not a very warm one.
“When we came back, we had to deplane out of the bottom of the plane. We could not walk in the main (airport) terminals because of people disrespecting us,” said Babcock, of Winchester.
That’s why Babcock said he was glad to be at Blue Grass Airport Saturday night to give a hero’s welcome to the 43 veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War who were on Honor Flight Kentucky’s inaugural flight to Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
During their daylong visit to the nation’s capital, the veterans and their guardians visited the memorials honoring them, took a driving tour of the city and laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery.
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Hundreds of people — their families and friends, Patriot Guard Riders, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, fellow members of the military and representatives of Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives, which sponsored the flight — turned out to welcome them home, packing the airport lobby.
“These are heroes, and we must never ever forget what they’ve done,” said Babcock.
Honor Flight Kentucky is a new chapter of the national Honor Flight Network that flies out of Lexington, serving Central and Eastern Kentucky, said Jeff Hohman, a member of the board. The state’s other hub is the Honor Flight Bluegrass Chapter, which flies out of Louisville.
The group that went to Washington Saturday included 23 World War II veterans, some of whom also served during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The eldest was 96 years old, said Joe Settles, of Touchstone.
“They are the Greatest Generation, and we owe so much to them,” he said.
Sgt. Audrey Lowe, 95, of Elizabethtown, said the trip “was real good,” and the welcome at the airport was like nothing he had ever seen before.
“Eight months ago, we didn’t know if he’d be here to make the trip,” said his wife, Kathy Lowe. “God has just blessed us.”
The veterans, many of them in wheelchairs, were led in by bagpipers playing “My Old Kentucky Home” and were met with cheers from the crowd and waving flags.
Ray Estes, 87, of Lexington; Tom Lisle, 85, of Irvine; and Harold Burgess, 84, of Lexington, are veterans of previous honor flights who came to the airport to cheer for those returning from Saturday’s trip.
All three said they grew teary-eyed when they walked through the terminal when they came back from their own honor flights.
“I was never treated this well in the service,” Lisle said.