As they boarded their flight at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport Sept. 22, the 140 veterans on board the first all-women Honor Flight had some inkling of what they were getting themselves into. While the aircraft touched down in the nation’s capital, the magnitude of the event became more and more evident.
The women veterans came from all walks of life and were paired with other women who served during a different era. For them, it was an opportunity to share their experiences and build the camaraderie that a lot of them have been missing.
Although the tour included a few stops along the way, the first landmark – the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va. – was a pivotal moment. While there, the women met other female active-duty servicemembers and veterans. They also had the chance to hear from Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald.
During his time with the veterans, McDonald thanked the women for their service. “Our nation is grateful. We are grateful for the challenges you endured and overcame, and the sacrifices you have made that men simply didn’t have to make. The service you have rendered to this country is more valuable than you could have ever imagined.”
His words hit home, resonating with those in attendance.
“This is exciting. I have never seen this many women veterans together,” said Johnnie Hamilton, an Army veteran who served in the 1950s. “It is time for us to be recognized."
Gulf War veteran Alicia Peterson said the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity gave her some insight into what it was like to be a minority in the military when segregation and racial injustice were at a peak. While she escorted Hamilton, Peterson learned intimate details about Hamilton's service in the Women’s Army Corps that she has never shared with anyone else – not even her husband who also served in the Army during World War II.
“It is amazing to be a part of her day,” Peterson said. “The barriers that she broke through – she paved the way for women in the military like me.”
Reluctantly, Hamilton admitted it was tough growing up during the time she was an adolescent. While walking around downtown Cincinnati one day shortly after her high school graduation, Hamilton found her inspiration to join the Army.
“I saw this picture at the post office that said, ‘Uncle Sam wants you.’ So I went in and joined,” she said.It was not easy to go into the military during segregation, Hamilton said. “It is very personal – the things that we went through as blacks in the military – especially around Fort Lee in Virginia, Fort Mc McClellan in Alabama and in Maryland. It just wasn’t a good place to be at that time.”
After what she endured before the military and while serving her country, Hamilton said her journey was far from over. After serving her country honorably, she returned to her segregated civilian life.
Peterson said she is grateful to have met Hamilton. While they got to know each other, the two bonded closer together after realizing they were both stationed at Ft. Meade in Maryland at different points during their military careers.
“To understand her background and her bravery is a tremendous honor,” Peterson said.
Seeing the men and women lined up at various points across the district to greet her and the other veterans warmed Hamilton’s heart. “I cried all the way through the D.C. airport because of all the people that were there greeting us. This opportunity really made me feel better about my service,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton also had the opportunity to meet fellow Army veteran Verna Jones, executive director of The American Legion’s office in Washington, D.C.
"People are finally starting to understand and value the contributions women have made while serving in the military," Jones said. “Our roles in the military have always been downplayed. To have an event like this lets us know that our sacrifices, service and commitments to our country are recognized. Our country understands that we are patriotic in every sense of the word, and we give to our country as well.”
While Taps played in the background, Jones described the healing processes and empowerment she witnessed during the day’s activities.
“It is hard to verbalize what this feels like. When those ladies walked in, they were so proud," Jones said. "Those of us standing on the sidelines were just as proud. We were clapping, shaking hands, giving high fives and hugging each other. It is a sisterhood.”
Among the ranks of a veteran mother and daughter duo, a radio operator that helped break Nazi code during World War II, a Navy veteran featured on a recruiting poster, an aircraft repair officer and a host of others who played equally as important roles, a few navy blue caps with gold trim stuck out as women Legionnaires stood proudly beside their sisters-in-arms. Seven members of the Greater Cincinnati Women's American Legion Post 644, including Commander Georgia Dahlberg, made the trip to Washington together.
Since the first Honor Flight took off 10 years ago, more than 180,000 veterans have been granted opportunities to visit the respective memorials of the wars they served and fought in. Before the historic flight Tuesday, no more than five women had been on an Honor Flight at one time.
“It is long overdue,” Peterson said. “Women have a unique role in the military, and I’m glad to see events like the all-female Honor Flight are finally happening. I hope to see events like this happen more often.”