By Dr. Jim Ferguson

“Tell them we gave our todays for their tomorrows.”

You may be surprised to learn that my favorite big city is Washington D.C.  This statement usually raises some eyebrows.  None the less, our national Capital is an architecturally beautiful city, steeped in our American history.  I’ve experienced the allure of Paris, the uniqueness of Venice and the beauty of Prague.  Even San Francisco has a beautiful bridge and, when used as a gateway to Muir Woods and the northern California wine country, has some redeeming qualities, but Washington is singular.

I tell people that Washington’s beautiful buildings, evocative memorials and magnificent museums shouldn’t be faulted for the company they keep.  I’m referring to the K Street boys and our politicians who reside there and principally serve themselves and party rather than the people they are supposed to represent.  There are exceptions, of course, like the character Jimmy Stewart portrayed in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  However, too many of our leaders are not the citizen-servants like The Founders.  Nor are they like the Greatest Generation’s  “citizen-soldiers” of WW II described by Ernie Pyle.  No, our politicos are too often there for life or to establish trans-generational dynasties.

My first trip to Washington was with the Safety Patrol during sixth grade.  I remember the raucous bus ride with my friends, trudging up the Washington Monument, but little else.  Since then I’ve returned to Washington many times to play junior ice hockey, visit friends and family, wander through the marvelous museums, or to reflect on the monuments to brave Americans who made our country a reality.

However, my journey to Washington on Wednesday, October 1st 2014, was like no other.  This time I accompanied the heroes who made Washington and our country possible.  You see, I was selected to serve as a guardian for two of the one hundred and twenty-two veterans on Honor Air’s Flight 17.  This national program takes military veterans to our nation’s Capital for a whirlwind tour of the city and the memorials they made possible.  I am proud to be a part of Knoxville’s Honor Air program which has taken more than two thousand veterans of WWII and Korea to Washington over the last eight years.  And I’m proud of our “little city” which apparently has a big heart for heroes.  Knoxville enthusiastically hosted the Medal of Honor Conference in September, and the airport reception for our returning Honor Air veterans was like nothing I have ever experienced.

One of my new veteran friends told me of being spit upon when he came home from service in Vietnam.  This time he and his comrades were given standing ovations of honor by Knoxville patriots.  And after serving and living all over the world, this veteran now considers Knoxville his home and a “little known treasure” made even more so by the love shown him by his countrymen.  Another confided in me, during the magnificent reception, replete with marching band and John Phillip Sousa’s music, that his hope in America has been renewed.  Too many these days do not respect those who gave their todays for our tomorrows.

I graduated from high school in 1969 just as the Vietnam War was winding down.  I went through the military’s draft-lottery system, but was never asked to serve.  I didn’t burn my draft card or participate in anti-war rallies and never considered draft dodging in Canada.  It was a different time then, but war and military service are seemingly timeless in their ability to imprint on a soldier’s life and soul the concepts of country and camaraderie.  I see these foundational principles operative in the way these veterans carry themselves, and salute our flag and each other with the utmost respect and tenderness.  In some ways I am envious of the men and women who were taught the military’s selfless devotion and honor.  The character of these men was palpable as we watched the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  I believe America would be better if all her citizens served the country two years after high school and learned the lessons of life and honor, instead of the lessons of the “occupy Wall Street” rabble.

I reflect with pride that I served in some small way with Honor Air.  There are many ways to help this program and our veterans.  Many can help with a monetary contribution.  Others can donate their time in logistical support or a day of service to veterans now aging and in need of help to experience their memorials and our Capital.  This seventeenth trip of Knoxville’s veterans included thirty-eight who served in WWII which ended sixty-nine years ago.  Many of these guys and gals of the Greatest Generation were eighteen to twenty years old during the last world war, and are now in their late eighties.  Some are in wheel chairs with bodies bent by the years.  Likewise, our Korean veterans aren’t getting younger and most are approaching eighty.

We must hurry to serve them before it’s too late.  It was too late for my father who has now passed away.  He was a naval aviator on the Yorktown, an aircraft carrier three days out of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.  You see, on that “day that [still] lives in infamy” the Japanese were looking for carriers, but had to settle for battleships like the Arizona.  It’s funny how time and destiny work.  If the Yorktown had been at Pearl Harbor on December 7th my father would have undoubtedly been killed, and I would have never existed or penned an essay of tribute.  Imagine the stories lost with three hundred thousand Americans killed in WWII.  Think how the world has been altered by the loss of more than fifty thousand Americans in both Korea and Vietnam.  We must not forget those who made America possible and those soldiers who continue to do so today.

History is important.  Solzhenitsyn said in “The Gulag Archipelago” that the way to destroy a people is to take away their history.  We must not let America forget where we came from and how we got here.  Our duty as citizens is to say “No” to those who decry American exceptionalism.

I stood among exceptional people on Flight 17.  We must now answer America’s call and become the veterans of the future in a resurgent free land.