In remembrance of members of the armed forces who have fallen in service to the country, a grateful nation observes Memorial Day on the last Monday in May.
An Elkin resident and Army veteran has taken extra steps to honor the dead, after completing two honor flights in Washington, D.C.
Since 2005, Honor Flights have taken veterans to view memorials placed in their honor in the nation’s capital. The original plan for the Honor Flights was to bring World War II veterans to the capital to view the new World War II Memorial; now that focus has widened.
Elkin resident and retired United States Air Force Master Sergeant Paul Rusk had the good fortune to participate in two of the flights, first as a tutor and then as a as winner. The recent trip in April had about 90 people, totaling veterans, guards and medical personnel.
A rainbow water cannon salute sent the flight from Piedmont International Airport to Greensboro and greeted veterans at Reagan National upon arrival. Accustomed to a strict schedule, the veterans boarded four buses and stormed the memorials in no time.
The veterans’ caravan traveled to the Iwo Jima Memorial en route to the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. Its distinctive design rises from the area around it and creates quite an impression for those approaching from both directions.
“As the plane goes up – it’s the explosion of the bomb,” he explained. The steely arcs in the sky evoke the “bomb bust” maneuver of the Air Force Thunderbirds. However, only three arcs are shown, the missing fourth arc symbolized the “missing man” formation used in Air Force flyovers, particularly poignant this weekend.
He was particularly impressed with their visit to the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. They watched the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, known as the Old Guard, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Changing of the Guard. “I have found the importance of the weapon being on the opposite side of the soldier is to keep intruders away from the grave.”
To him the Old Guard meant a lot to the service, Rusk said their high personal code of conduct and exacting standards set them apart, not just that “you can shave in the shine of their shoes”.
“The old guard guys and gals, they’re great,” he said. The changing face of the military now means there have been five women to earn the Tomb Guard ID badge out of nearly 700 earned.
“They have women, because there was a lady doing the change.” More roles have opened up for women in what have traditionally been restricted combat roles, the Old Guard is an active unit. To think that women are less capable is madness, as he warns: “We have rangers, they’re just tough – dynamite comes in small packages, you know.
Rusk found the brother of his late first wife on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. “I knew he did, and I found his name on the walking wall, so I knew he was there, I just had to find him here. One of the volunteers on the wall, like I couldn’t get down and scrub, she did it for me.
“These are real heroes, those on the wall, and on Memorial Day, we remember those heroes.”
Of many Americans’ confusion between veterans and Memorial Day, he said, “Veterans Day is for all vets, whether they’re breathing or not; and Memorial Day is for the real heroes who are in Arlington and in national cemeteries across the country, and in private cemeteries.
To commemorate the brave fallen soldiers, the United States erected memorials on the National Mall, WWII being the last to open in 2004. During his recent visit, veterans approached the memorial of the Pacific side, whereas when Rusk was the keeper, his group approached on a cold, rainy day in November from the European side.
That day, “we had coppers coming out of the Pentagon to come and mingle with the vets, they had all kinds of braids on their uniforms and scrambled eggs,” he said, using a familiar for the embellished designs. officers’ caps.
Bringing officers from different branches to visit the vets meant a lot to the visitors. “It was good to see him, we had enlisted ranks through admirals and generals.”
The Honor Flights were for those WWII veterans in the first place, to bring them to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial of their brave sacrifice, and those who did not return from this great conflict – before it’s not too late.
Of the three veterans under his charge, he said: “As bad as the weather was, I haven’t heard a single word of complaint from any of them. I think it was a piece of cake compared to what they went through in WWII. My dad was Normandie and Battle of the Bulge, but we were never able to get him to talk about that. WWII vets just didn’t do it, they saw some horrible (stuff).
No stranger to the horrors of the conflict itself, Rusk said of his time in Southeast Asia that there was barbarism on both sides and things happened that no one wants to repeat. “There was shit going on in the jungle on both sides. We tried to do guerrilla warfare like we fought World War II, you can’t do that.
He is grateful that attitudes have changed in recent years and that the perception and reception of Vietnam-era veterans has changed, “from baby killers to heroes.”
After serving 22 years and 22 days, from August 1957 to August 1979, Master Sergeant Rusk called it a career when a final assignment in Berlin came into conflict with his family’s best interests.
He encourages young people to consider the military and suggests that the Air Force and Navy provide the best vocational training for a noncombatant military position. In the military, he noted, you train for ground combat; on a ship, day-to-day ship maintenance translates directly into electrical or technical knowledge much more easily than marksmanship.
He added with a chuckle, “It’s true that you can ‘Join the Navy and see the world’ and get a GI Bill. It’s great, as long as people don’t shoot you.