Recognized, Respected, Honored

Veterans thanked during Honor Flight trip to D.C.

By Craig Reed

U.S. Air Force veteran John Girard, 76, is pictured in his home studio, Knee-Hi-Arts. John, a double amputee, served from 1964 to 1969. Photo by Craig Reed

When John Girard and 60 other veterans exited the plane at Portland International Airport, they were met in the terminal hallway by applause and cheers from members of the U.S. Coast Guard and Oregon National Guard.

The reception was one more time the veterans were thanked for their service during their Southern Willamette Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., to view memorials.

“It was wonderful—the best trip I’ve ever had in my life,” says John, a Veneta resident who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1969. “It was a tremendous trip that is provided by an excellent program.”

During his service, John was diagnosed with thrombophlebitis, a disease in which blood clots formed in the veins of his legs. He had re-enlisted for 4 more years in 1968, but he then spent 9 months in a hospital before being medically discharged in 1969.

His left leg just below the knee was amputated in 1976, and he lost his right leg in 1977. Through the years, John has been an arts and crafts teacher, a woodworker and artist.

John, 76, had been scheduled to make an Honor Flight trip in 2021, but because of COVID-19, he opted out. He was thrilled to make the trip this year.

John Girard shakes a man’s hand during his Southern Willamette Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Fierling

“I wanted to go, but the COVID thing scared the hell out of me,” he says. “I got a call this year, and I was ready to go.”

Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization, was established in 2005 to “celebrate America’s veterans by inviting them to share in a day of honor at our nation’s memorials.”

The organization provides transportation for veterans to visit memorials in D.C. while honoring their service and providing a community of support.

As John slowly rolled down the terminal hallway on his scooter, a woman in uniform approached him and asked if she could carry his bag.

“I was on a scooter so my bag wasn’t a burden, but since she wanted to carry it, I said OK,” John recalls. “It turned out she was the Coast Guard commander. I told her I had never had a commander carry my bags for me. It was an individual thing on her part. It was most impressive.”

John is pictured in his home studio, aptly named Knee-Hi-Arts, where he works on artwork of a motorcycle. Photo by Craig Reed

The Southern Willamette veterans and their guardians were bused from Eugene to Portland on September 29 and flew out the next morning to Washington, D.C. The group included veterans from World War II through the Vietnam War.

John’s guardian was Roxanne Fireling, a longtime friend who lives in Springfield.

There were numerous highlights, John says, starting with the conversations he had with fellow veterans during the bus and plane trips. During the tour of the memorials, he was impressed with the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial

“I could identify with them,” John says. “That’s basically my situation.”

John visits the glass panels at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Fierling

The veterans watched the Changing of the Guard at the Arlington National Cemetery. John says it was a memorable experience because “it was raining like hell.” He says some of the veterans had umbrellas, but he didn’t.

Although he’s an Air Force veteran, John says he was impressed with the National Museum of the United States Army.

“It’s a huge, huge building and covers the Civil War up to the Vietnam War,” John says. “It was really interesting, and I wasn’t even in the Army.”

Another highlight for John was receiving a U.S. flag and letters of support and thanks from family, friends and strangers. The flag he received had been flown over the nation’s capital.

Annie Petersen, John’s daughter, says her father couldn’t quit talking about the trip for several days after he returned home October 3.

“He said it was absolutely amazing,” Annie says. “He said it was the best trip he’d ever been on, even in the pouring down rain. He got applause and an audience, and he was quite beside himself not knowing what to do with that much attention.”

John has now settled back into his routine of going to his home studio and gallery each day and continuing to draw with pencil, pen and paint. He had previously worked with wood, building replica-sized motorcycles, but he stopped because of the machinery involved and the risk of injury.

He specializes in artwork of motorcycles, hot rods and trucks. Because of his amputations and his ability to walk on his knees, he calls his home studio Knee-Hi-Arts.

John doesn’t try to sell what he creates, though.

“It’s therapy for me,” he says. “That’s what I do it for.”