COVINGTON, Ind. — Donald “Pat” Conder has several caps with military emblems on them. When he wears one, people shake his hand and thank him for his service.
That’s a far cry from 1971, when he returned from the Vietnam War.
“Here come the baby killers,” he heard a protester say as he and his fellow Army buddies entered the Philadelphia airport. Somebody spat on his shoes.
However, he said of a recent trip, “The welcome at the Springfield airport made up for it.”
Conder was referring to a Land of Lincoln Honor Flight on Oct. 29, when he and 93 other veterans traveled to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials erected in their honor. Also on that flight were William Siddens of Danville, and Tom and Audry Morse of Danville, all Army veterans from the Vietnam War era.
When the veterans returned from their day-long trip, they were welcomed by hundreds of well-wishers at the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport. The people, of all ages, were holding signs, balloons, posters and wearing patriotic colors.
Conder spotted his wife Penny, and daughter and granddaughter from Tennessee. They were holding up a welcome sign.
“That place was packed,” Penny said of the airport. “The guys (veterans) barely had an aisle to walk down.”
The veterans also got a warm welcome when they landed at the Ronald Reagan National Airport.
With his guardian, Carol Locke of Highland, Ind., Conder boarded one of the three motor coaches, and they set off to see the sites. They had a police escort, which helped them get through traffic more quickly.
Conder hadn’t been in D.C. very long when he called his wife and said, “We’ve got to come back here.”
There were so many sites he enjoyed, he said, but finally settled on the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
“That was the best thing,” he said. “It is precision. I enjoyed watching it.”
He learned a lot about the training that the guards undergo and the meaning behind the movements.
He also took an elevator up to the Lincoln Memorial, but walked down the steps afterward.
Also on the trip were visits to World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials, National Air & Space Museum, the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, the U.S. Navy Plaza and the U.S. Air Force Memorial.
Conder liked seeing the aircraft at the Air Museum, especially the space shuttle and Enola Gay bomber. “I could spend a day in the space museum,” he said.
At the Vietnam War Memorial, he appreciated the architecture, but didn’t get emotional. He didn’t know any names of people on the wall.
When Conder was in training for the military in Virginia, he spent every weekend in D.C. seeing the sites. However, many of the current memorials hadn’t been erected yet.
On the way home, all of the veterans received a bag of letters and cards of thanks from family, friends and students. Conder didn’t open his bag until he got home.
Looking back, he said, “It was well worth the trip. It’s fast and furious, but you get to see a lot.”
A native of Anderson, Ind., Conder moved to Covington to live with relatives after he graduated from high school in 1967. He was drafted into the Army in 1969; he served nine months in Germany and 15 months in Vietnam, where he repaired generators.
He returned home in 1971, and worked various jobs, including ESCO Corp., MH Equipment, Nissan as a resident mechanic, and he operated his own Conder Forklift Services.
He’s been working on farms owned by his family since 1965, and continues to do a variety of farm work.
He and his wife lived in Covington for 30 years, then moved to the country east of Covington. Both have worked as firefighters with the Covington and Wayne Township departments. Penny worked full-time for the Fountain County Ambulance Service as the first female driver, and was the first woman on the Covington Fire Department.
The couple married in 1976, and have two daughters, Cassie Cunningham of Covington and Amanda Billingsley in Tennessee, and three grandchildren.
Conder is a member of the American Legion Post 210 in Danville and its honor guard.
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 4,546 Illinois and Indiana veterans on 58 flights.