Two West Jefferson veterans who have been friends for more than 50 years recently enhanced their friendship with a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C. to honor veterans who served the country.
The Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. began weeks earlier when current village council president Ron Garver received a phone call to see if he was interested in escorting a Korean War veteran who is a West Jefferson resident.
Early this year, Garver made his first trip with Honor Flight as a guardian for a Columbus veteran and eager to serve again, he said. However, this request came with an unforeseen surprise.
“They told me it was Ed Estep. I laughed and said I’ve known Ed for 50 years,” Garver recalled. “He’s my barber and he’s the reason I don’t have any hair.”
Honor Flight is an organization that transports World War II veterans for free to Washington, D.C so they can experience the national memorials that were built in their honor. Recently, the organization has started to include Korean veterans to visit the Korean War Memorial, as well as the other military memorials.
Ed Estep owned and operated Mr. Ed’s Barbershop, a landmark business in downtown, for more than 50 years. Estep served the United States Air Force for two years during the Korean War in the 12th tactical reconnaissance group.
Estep had received word that his name had been placed on the Honor Flight list and had been selected to go with a group in early June. He had been to Washington, D.C. a couple of times, but did not realize there was a Korean War Memorial built to honor men like himself.
“On the trip they run us through the mill over there,” Estep said. “I did a good bit of eating on the trip, that’s one thing I learned in the military. But, it was great. I’ve been to D.C. and never saw the Korean War Memorial, never knew it existed. It was great to see everything and we got a motorcycle escort for the entire trip through town.”
During the Korean War, Estep rode the back of a plane as a photographer taking detailed aerial photographs to make maps of the country in English.
“At the time, all the maps we had of Korea was in Japanese, so our job was flying over Korea and photographing all over the place. We got shot at a lot in South Korea and they took us to Japan for a while. In North Korea they knew we were reconnaissance so they didn’t shoot at us too much. They didn’t waste their ammo on us.”
Both Estep and Garver said that one of the most inspiring things about a Honor Flight trip is not just seeing all of the patriotic memorials, but rather seeing and interacting with all of the people who come out to the local airport and the Baltimore airport to greet and cheer those who served the country during time of conflict.
“What really surprised me was all the people that were there to greet us and thanks us for our service,” Estep said. “We had two-star generals that greeted us in Baltimore along with lots of current service men and women and all kinds of visitors. When we returned to the Columbus airport it was at night with no more flights for the night and the place was packed with people to greet us and we all sang ‘God Bless America’ before going home. I thank everyone for making sure I had a good time.”
Garver said the experience is very moving for both the veterans and the guardians.
“It’s really something to see,” Garver said. “There are kids as young as two years old meeting the veterans and shaking their hands and thanking them for serving our country. It’s nice to see that they have been raised with such respect for our veterans.”
The most emotional part of the entire trip for Estep came at a time when he least expected it. On the bus ride back to the Baltimore airport to make the return flight to Columbus, there was a “mail call” aboard the bus, just like when he was in the military.
“They had a mail call on the bus and they called out each of our names,” Estep said. “I then received this envelope full of letters from seventh and eighth grade kids thanking me for my service. Some were from Mr. Kitchen’s West Jefferson Middle School history class thanking me. I don’t know how they found out so much about me. That really brought the tears to my eyes. They were so touching.”
For Garver, who was active during the time period of the Vietnam War, it was yet another unique way to serve his country by helping to assist a veteran to experience such a heart-warming and rewarding visit to the memorials that pay tribute to them.
He thanked the West Jefferson VFW 7005 for sponsoring his fees to escort Estep. There were 82 veterans on the trip, 17 of which were WWII veterans and the rest being Korean veterans. One attendee was only three months shy of 100 years old, Garver said.
“The trip is a lot of work and the guardians go through special training to be prepared to escort a veteran, but it is such an honor to do it,” he said. “You just feel real good when you are done.”