A wagon of honor

Several months ago, Legion Rider John Wakeley and other Riders from American Legion Post 952 in Georgetown, Pa., were waiting at the Pittsburgh International Airport to escort the dignified remains of a fallen soldier back to his hometown of Erie. Wakeley, who works in airfield operations at the airport, watched as the casket was unloaded from the plane, placed on a "dirty" baggage cart "like a set of golf clubs," he said, and driven to the cargo area where it was then transferred to a hearse. The careless treatment of the fallen soldier's remains didn’t sit well with Wakeley.

"We felt it was disrespectful that the remains weren’t being honorably treated," he said. "The carts are dirty, the carts are rusty."

Wakeley spoke to co-worker Mark Chamoditz about what he witnessed and his desire to honor America’s fallen war heroes with respect. Chamoditz helped Wakeley’s desire become possible by asking the airport authority office to donate a baggage cart for Wakeley to refurbish. The airport donated an unused baggage cart, and Wakeley watched his vision of the honor wagon come to life.

Wakeley, first vice commander of American Legion Post 952, is also a Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 862 member. He recruited Legion and VVA members alike to help him refurbish the luggage cart and many local businesses received word about the project and donated material and labor for free.

To refurbish the cart, the middle shelf was removed, it was repainted, a roller system was installed to accommodate a casket and a glass/plastic composite was installed on the sides of the cart. Each side of the wagon features the insignia of the five U.S. military branches of service, the Pennsylvania National Guard emblem and VVA’s motto, "Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another."

Now, when a plane lands with the remains of a fallen war hero, the casket will be respectfully transferred to the honor wagon.

The honor wagon was unveiled during a special ceremony at the Pittsburgh airport that involved the family of the fallen soldier, as he was the inspiration behind the wagon.

"I gave ideas on how it should look, but I was overwhelmed when I saw it complete," Wakeley said. "Now, men and women will be honored all the way home."