(Read Eric Hoever's post below this one for the thoughts of one of our 36 Southwest Airlines Veterans.)
The last week of June, I had the great pleasure and distinct honor of hosting 36 of our Employees as they traveled to Seattle to take delivery of our 500th airplane. But these weren't just ordinary Employees (like we'd have any ordinary Employees), these 36 Employees either were currently serving or had served in the armed forces, defending our nation. In addition, this flight was piloted by two military Veterans, Captain Chuck Magill (Marine Corps and Air Force), Vice Presdient of Flight Operations, and System Chief Pilot, Captain Terry Gleason (Marine Corps). You see, they didn't just bring America the Freedom to Fly. They brought America Freedom.
Some of the most touching moments of the trip came from conversations with our military servicemen and veterans. We had designed this trip as a small "thank you" to them for the time they've sacrificed in service to our country. But truly, I had no idea the amazing impact this trip would have on them, and on me. These 36 men and women came from all branches of the military, and had served in many different wars and operations. They had served in Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and countless other lands--foreign and domestic. They'd earned purple hearts, bronze stars, and Medals of Honor. They had flown through hurricanes, performed air strikes in Baghdad, and been prisoners of war in Vietnam. The sacrifices they had made were monumental.
But what touched me most of all was when several of our Vietnam servicemen talked about how when they returned home from the war, there was no welcome, no parade, no yellow ribbon, no fireworks. Unlike soldiers returning home from other wars, who were greeted with parades and yellow ribbons, some of our Vietnam Veterans had returned home from war to find a country unwilling to thank them for what they had done. Not anymore.
On June 28, the People of Southwest Airlines greeted these men and women with a true hero's welcome. That afternoon, complete with color guard, band, confetti, and American flags; our heroes were embraced with the warmest of ceremonies. More than 30 years later, they finally received a long-awaited welcome home. My heart swelled with pride as I witnessed Gary call out their name and military accomplishments. They were greeted with hugs from Herb and Colleen, and cheers from the crowd of Employees.
Some descended the stairs from the airplane wearing a uniform that they wear when they actively serve our country today--its familiarity like a friend who has seen you at your best and worst. Some wore uniforms that hadn't been outside the cedar chest for many years--the fit having changed a little with age, but the deep pride that comes from donning the colors still endures. For others, wearing the uniform from decades ago was a true impossibility--but they proudly wore the insignia of their branch of the armed forces in another way.
These men and women sacrifice still to this day to ensure our Freedoms. They guard our land, but they also fight for intangible concepts like justice, honor, and equality. No words that I can type could ever convey the deep gratitude that I feel towards those who fight for our Freedoms after an encounter like this. For all of those who are actively fighting for our Freedoms today, my heart is thankful.
God Bless America.