By Tracy Correa
BAKERSFIELD – The small airport in Bakersfield was unusually packed at 5 a.m. today (April 12) as military veterans clutched tightly to boarding passes. Well-wishers – many dressed in red, white and blue – waited to give these former service men and women a proper send off.
Thirty-one veterans, most of whom served in World War II, are part of an all-expense-paid trip to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C., as part of Honor Flight Kern County, affiliated with the national Honor Flight Network. For many, this is their first and only opportunity to see the monuments dedicated to their service.
Eugene “Gene” Jackson, 85, of Bakersfield had a difficult time containing his excitement: “I wanna go. So, what’s holding this plane up?” The plane wasn’t scheduled to leave for another hour.
Jackson, who served in the U.S. Navy during WWII, is one of three veterans sponsored by PG&E which made a $10,000 contribution to Honor Flight Kern County this year. The utility’s contribution – the single-largest corporate donation to the local nonprofit — will cover expenses for six veterans this year, three of them on today’s flight. Jackson also worked at PG&E’s Kern Power Plant after the war ended.
To say that he was excited would be an understatement, said Jackson’s wife of 65 years, Mavine. “He woke up every five minutes last night,” wondering if it was time to go, she said.
Jackson gets emotional looking out at his fellow veterans, thinking about what they have seen in war. But, he said he’s looking forward to the positive experience they will share together at the memorials. “Oh, I’m gonna miss him,” said Mavine.
A first for the women
Also going on the trip are Lavon Hellinga, 88, who like Jackson, served in the Navy during WWII, and Roberta Busby, who served in the U.S. Air Force. The Bakersfield women are the first ever on an Honor Flight from Kern.
Hellinga, whose military work included repairing bullet-riddled war planes, expressed gratitude for PG&E’s help in sending her on the trip. “If it wasn’t for PG&E, I’d be sitting home in a rocking chair.”
Busby said she still can’t believe she was invited because she was never deployed out of the country. “But, I’m glad just the same,” she said. The soft-spoken Busby tried to downplay her service, before sharing that she spent nine years at The Pentagon decoding top secret messages for the military.
Fresno resident Clyde Gasio, 88, who was onboard a Navy ship in the Pacific during WWII, sat in a wheelchair pushed by his niece Sylvia Ortega waiting to board. “I’m saving my strength for when I get there,” said the recipient of two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star.
Donations are critical
“They deserve to be able to see these memorials,” said Laura Whitaker, a board member for Honor Flight Kern County. “And without the support of companies like PG&E, this would not be possible.”
Honor Flight members are scheduled to visit the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial , the Korean War Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery among other sites. But the trips are costly at about $1,500 a person, making donations critical. Honor Flight also counts on volunteers or “guardians” who pay about $1,200 to make the trip and chaperone the veterans – many of whom need assistance.
Today’s send-off in Bakersfield included a water salute over the two commercial planes as they prepared to take off and a Kern County fire truck with the American flag raised on top of a ladder in front of the airport.
The veterans will return to Bakersfield Sunday (April 14) evening.
E-mail Tracy Correa at Tracy.Correa@pge.com