First Juneteenth Honor Flight to DC

The first Juneteenth Honor Flight made its way from Atlanta, Georgia to Washington D.C. on Wednesday, honoring some two dozen all-Black service men and women who tell FOX 5, they’ve never received this kind of hero’s welcome before.

"I’m just amazed. I mean … you know, I knew we were coming for this, but I had no idea it would be to this level. I had no idea," said Ruth Walker, who met her husband, Rodney Walker, in the Marine Corps during the time of the Vietnam War.

"It wasn’t a good time," described Rodney Walker after the war, "When I came back from Vietnam, traveling back to my hometown, I was told to remove my uniform, so I could travel without being harassed."

It’s that feeling of unwelcomeness compounded with the other experience of being Black in the military are reasons behind why Honor Flight board member John McCaskill says he and his colleagues wanted to organize this first Juneteenth Honor Flight.

They purposefully did so on Juneteenth, the holiday that marks the day slavery ended in the United States.

McCaskill explained that the experience for many African Americans serving in the military includes laying down their lives to defend this country but going home to continued segregation and racism.  

This flight was about honoring the extraordinary bravery and resilience of Black service men and women.

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"If someone is willing to lay their life down, you cannot deny them full citizenship, and it ain’t just African Americans who’ve done it. Listen, there’s a lot of different neighborhoods that have contributed to the country that we have today. And so, we’re excited about the opportunity to do it, my goodness," said McCaskill.

At 101-years-old, U.S. Navy Veteran Calvin Kemp Senior says this hero’s greeting means everything.

"I never had it before. I’ve been out of the military – I went out of the military in 1943, and they forget about it. Eighty years ago and now all of a sudden they start … I feel like a celebrity. I feel very good. I feel very blessed and happy to be an American. I’m a Happy Black American," the centenarian hero told FOX 5.

You could see the emotion on their faces as a group of about 25 African American service members and their families arrived. Their plane drove up to the gate under a water cannon salute at Regan Washington National Airport. They then exited the gate to find a huge hero’s homecoming, with adults and children waiving American Flags and a Juneteenth banner greeting them at the Southeast Terminal 1 gate.

From there, a day visiting their respective memorials was planned. The group first visited the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial. They then participated in a special wreath laying service at Arlington National Cemetery.

The trip also included stops at the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the Martin Luther King Junior, Lincoln, and World War II Memorials, among others.

The Honor Flight Network has been operating since 2005 and has served over 300,000 military service members from all across the country. McCaskill told FOX 5 he’s hopeful this day of many "firsts" won’t be the last.

"It’s also about the next generation seeing them being honored," said McCaskill, "…and hopefully, what it will do is give other veterans of color, regardless of the neighborhood, to say, you know this thing is for me."