LIMA — Thomas Greenland was surprised by the fanfare when he returned to Columbus International Airport from Washington, D.C.
Greenland had just finished an Honor Flight to the nation’s capital, but the retired U.S. Army corporal was not anticipating the bagpipes, the water cannons nor the hundreds of cheering strangers who greeted him as if he were returning home from war.
Greenland was drafted into the army at 23 years old during the early years of the Vietnam War, barely missing deployments to Korea and Vietnam.
“I’ve been out since 1965 and nobody’s ever said much of anything,” he said. This homecoming was different.
The Honor Flight network has flown more than 245,000 veterans like Greenland to Washington, D.C., since the nonprofit organization was founded in 2005, according to its website.
The flights have since become a popular tradition, whisking elder veterans to Arlington National Cemetery, the Vietnam Wall and other national monuments erected in their honor, all at no cost to those who served through the end of the Vietnam War, including veterans of World War II and the Korean War.
Priority is given to terminally ill and Purple Heart veterans as well as those who served during World War II.
The tradition is something of a second homecoming for those whose first was marked by public backlash to the draft and unpopular wars.
This time, the fanfare is more fitting of a hero: Water cannons shoot over the airplane as it lands in Washington, D.C., a tribute repeated at the end of the return flight home.
There are personalized mail bags filled with memorabilia and letters from family, friends and strangers waiting for the veterans to read on their own, often in private.
Passersby and schoolchildren stop to pay their thanks too as the group is escorted through the nation’s capital.
The group is then greeted by a chorus of bagpipes and hundreds of onlookers, comprised of family, friends and strangers waiting at the Columbus International Airport at the conlcusion of the trip.
It was all a surprise for Greenland, who was accustomed to apathy from strangers.
“They’re all shaking your hand and thanking you,” Greenland said. One girl in D.C. told Greenland: “If it wasn’t for your kind of people, we wouldn’t be free,” he recalled.