Ironton man joins veterans ‘Honor Flight’ to D.C.

Joining John (left) on the Honor Flight was his twin brother, Carl Mertens (right). They both had the opportunity to meet up with their niece, Laura Mertens, a resident of the Washington D.C. area. John is an Army vet, while Carl is a Navy vet.

Since 2009, the Central Missouri Honor Flight organization has been giving elderly veterans a free trip to Washington D.C. to see the memorials that have been erected in their honor.

John Mertens of Ironton recently returned from such a trip and was enthusiastic in recommending it to other vets.

“My brother Chuck went last year – he was in the Air Force,” Mertens explained. I had learned about it several years ago and thought it would be pretty neat. So he got me an application.”

The Honor Flight left Columbia, MO on Tuesday, August 14 and included John and his twin brother, Carl.

John is an Army veteran, serving as radioteletype operator from 1964-66.  He sent in his application for the program “9 or 10 months ago” and was accepted for the August 14 flight.

“Each flight has 110 people,” he said. “For every three veterans they have another person called a guardian to help you and keep you from getting lost.”

Central Missouri Honor Flight sends out 6 flights per year, all funded by private dollars with no cost to the vets.

It is a moving, and whirlwind trip:  Busses left Columbia around midnight for a trip to the Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. A chartered plan took them to Washington, D.C. to see the sights and then the same trip in reverse brought them back to Columbia by 10 p.m. the same day.

“We were in D.C. nine hours,” Mertens said.

Among the sights visited by the vets were the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the World War Two Memorial, the Marine Memorial, the Air Force Memorial and a museum honoring women in the military.

John was snapping photos all the while which made the trip seem even shorter.  But one thing about the flight sticks out in his mind.

“One of the nicest parts of the trip was when we flew back to St. Louis and got on the busses again for Columbia and when we reached a big truck stop at Kingdom City, about 20 miles east of Columbia, we started picking up patrol cars as escorts,” he said.  “Some of the troopers followed us and kept traffic two miles back from the busses. Then these motorcycle groups started coming up behind us. There were 100 motorcycles or more. They passed us and stayed a mile or so ahead of us. The motorcycles were all lit up.

“When we passed by the Millersburg exit, there was a fireworks display. As we got closer to Columbia, there were people on the side of the road and on the overpasses waving flags to welcome us back.

“In Columbia, the police had every exit blocked off and stopped traffic on I-70 long enough for us to get by.  Every police agency within five counties participated, including the Highway Patrol. When we turned to go over an overpass back to the motel, I could see behind us and there were 25 police cars with flashing lights.

“We pulled into the motel and there were 900 people there and bagpipers and military members in dress uniforms. When we got off the bus, each veteran was escorted into the motel individually by a police officer or highway patrolman.  As you entered the building they gave your name, your branch of service and the Missouri town you were from. Coffee and cookies inside.

“I enjoyed that.  That was really nice.

“Someone said they talked to the Columbia Police Commissioner and he told them, ‘We don’t do half this much for the President of the United States.’”