DANVILLE — Although some say “grown men don’t cry,” Army veteran Ron Gash can attest that’s not always true, especially when patriotism is involved.
A recent Land of Lincoln Honor Flight trip brought tears to the eyes of Gash and other veterans as they visited memorials in their honor and accepted handshakes from strangers.
Gash, 71, who served in the Vietnam War, said, “It was a whole lot different than when I got home (in 1970). My family was glad to see me, but other than that … nothing.”
People cheered the veterans when they landed at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., and when they returned to Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport. Along the way, strangers noticed the Land of Lincoln hats and shirts, and stopped to relay their thanks.
Gash of south Danville was one of 93 veterans who boarded the Honor Flight on Aug. 20 for the day-long trip to D.C. On board were five World War II vets, 29 Korean War and 59 Vietnam War era veterans.
Gash was drafted into the Army in December 1968, and was trained as a generator mechanic. He served almost a year in Vietnam working on generators, driving a truck and hauling supplies to men in the field. He was a specialist E4 when he was discharged in November 1970.
On the Honor Flight, his guardian was his son, Jason of Danville.
They visited the World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials, as well as Arlington National Cemetery for the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Other stops included the Lincoln Memorial, the National Air & Space Museum (Chantilly, Va.), the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial and the U.S. Air Force Memorial.
On the way home, each veteran enjoyed “mail call,” when they were presented with a packet of letters and cards written by family, friends and strangers. That was the most emotional part, Gash said, as he surveyed the dozens of envelopes.
“This brought a lot of tears to my eyes,” he said. He added, jokingly, “I didn’t know I had so many friends.”
He wasn’t the only one to get emotional. When the veterans read their letters, the plane got very quiet, he said.
His favorite part of the trip was visiting the Air & Space Museum, where he was amazed to see the Discovery, Enola Gay and his favorite, a WWII P-38. He also was fascinated with the engines, as that’s his specialty, and was intrigued with a 36-cylinder engine designed for a large plane, but never used.
A pleasant surprise at the Lincoln Memorial was stepping off the bus and seeing Beth Sherman, who lives in D.C., and who is the daughter of his cousin, Marilyn Sherman of Oakwood.
She accompanied the Gashes to the Vietnam and Korean War sites. Gash saw the traveling Vietnam memorial wall when it came to Danville a few years ago.
Gash had been to Arlington National Cemetery when he was stationed at Fort Belvoir near D.C. in 1968. He also was present for the procession when President Dwight Eisenhower died.
As for the changing of the guard and lowering of the flag, he said, “It’s something to see. It brings a tear to the eye.”
The only glitch on the trip was an almost four-hour delay leaving D.C. because of storms on the East Coast. The plane returned to Springfield before 2 a.m., and Gash was surprised to see a crowd of people welcoming the flight home.
“I was just amazed that all these people would be there at 2 in the morning to greet us,” he recalled. People were shaking the vets’ hands, holding up patriotic signs and cheering for them.
Gash enjoyed the trip so much that he has already recommended it to several people.
Gash grew up east of Westville — his father farmed land that is now Forest Glen Preserve — and attended Georgetown High School. He was working at Berkeley-Davis when he was drafted, and returned there for a short time after his discharge.
He also held odd jobs until he followed in his dad’s footsteps and got a job at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System. He worked in nursing, as a truck driver, in the plumbing shop, and as a mechanic at the garage before retiring in 2003 after 33 years at the VA.
Gash now works one day a week at Big R Rentals. He enjoys taking boat trips, including the “great circle” route, with a friend, and volunteers at the Vermilion County Museum with his wife, Donna.
He’s a member of the Westville American Legion and the Westville Sportsman Club, and is a 32nd Degree Mason.
He and his wife have two children, Jason of Danville, and daughter Nyla Panzilous of Roselle; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren, with one on the way.
ABOUT HONOR FLIGHT
Honor Flight is free to veterans, but guardians undergo training and pay a fee.
Veteran applications continue to be accepted with flight priority given in the following order: World War II (enlisted by Dec. 31, 1946), then Korean War Era (Jan. 1, 1947 to Dec. 31, 1957), followed by the Vietnam War Era (Jan. 1, 1958, to May 7, 1975). Any certified terminally ill veteran should contact Land of Lincoln directly.
Because every veteran flies with a guardian escort, applications for future guardians also are being accepted. This may be any able-bodied person, 18-70 years old, except for veterans who have already been honored with a flight or a spouse/significant other of a veteran on a flight.
The guardian fee includes Land of Lincoln training, cap and T-shirt, round-trip flight, bus tour during the day, meals and snacks, refreshments and the privilege of spending the day honoring the veterans.
Land of Lincoln is a 501© 3 non-profit organization that receives no government funding. It honors the veteran with a trip to D.C. due to generous donations, sponsorships, fundraising events, merchandise sales and supporting efforts of the many local businesses, individuals and organizations within its service area.
Since its inception in 2009, Land of Lincoln Honor Flight has served 4,361 Illinois veterans on 56 flights.