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Statesboro Vietnam Veterans welcomed home with Honor Flight Savannah trip

Even though their bodies have begun to slow down, when the bus departed for one last "mission," in their minds they were all 18 again. Join Grice Connect's DeWayne Grice as he takes you on a trip of a lifetime for local Veterans.

Four Vietnam Veterans, all with connections to Statesboro, GA, were selected to be part of the 29th Honor Flight Savannah trip to Washington, D.C.  

The four included:

  • Paul Akins, Jr.
  • Russell Collins
  • Jimmy Hodges
  • Jeff Hurst

Russell is a family friend, and I was honored to be able to travel with him as his guardian. Each Veteran is assigned a guardian. Guardians are volunteers who pay their way to attend the trip and volunteer their time.  

There is also a medical team that travels with the veterans led by Lara Birdsong, RN, from Statesboro who is a nurse at the Ray Hendrix VA Clinic in Statesboro.

Joining Lara on the medical team were Marty Hucks and Tracy George, who are nursing professors at Francis Marion University, along with three senior level BSN students, James Gaskins, Laney Evans, and Rachel Cole. The University provides a scholarship for the faculty and students to travel with the Veterans. 

Statesboro's Don Poe, who coordinates efforts for Honor Flight Savannah in the Statesboro area, traveled as a guardian as well.

This was my second Honor Flight trip, but the first with someone I had a close relationship with. It is a trip of a lifetime for all of the Veterans and the guardians fortunate enough to be selected for this trip. 

But this Honor Flight was even more special for me, doing it with Russell, a man I have admired for most of my adult life.

Russell Collins and DeWayne Grice. DeWayne Grice

First Meeting

The all expense paid trip for the Veterans began with dinner on Thursday night, where 21 Veterans from the Savannah area met, many for the first time. Spouses are invited to attend the dinner, as well. They receive their “orders” at the dinner and receive last minute instructions for their “deployment” on Friday morning. All of the Veterans on this trip served during the Vietnam era.

Joining them on the trip in addition to the guardians and medical team were members of the Honor Flight Savannah leadership including:

  • Larry Spears, LT. USN retired, trip coordinator
  • Marian Spears. lead guardian
  • Owen  Hand, director
  • Carol Megathlin, legislative/military liaison
  • Jerry Meannche, photographer

The Departure

At 0700, the Veterans reported to the Springfield National Guard Armory for breakfast and another briefing, then boarded the bus for their trip to our Nation’s Capital.

Even though their bodies may have told a different story, each of them were 18 again mentally.  It was as if they were departing for service all over again. For most of them, it was the first time in decades that they have been away from their spouses and family for several nights. This "freedom" was apparent and part of what makes this trip so special.

Sheriff McDuffie addressing the Vets before the departure. DeWayne Grice

Jimmy McDuffie, Sheriff of Effingham County, his deputies, Springfield and Rincon Police Officers, and members of the Blue Knights motorcycle club provided a VIP police escort for the Veterans. 

Sheriff McDuffie, deputies and Blue Knights escort to Veterans. DeWayne Grice

Citizens lined the streets at 0800 in downtown Springfield to send the veterans off.

Springfield, GA residents came out to send the Vets off. DeWayne Grice

This VIP departure set the tone for three days of celebrating these men and women for their tremendous sacrifice for our country.  

The comradery was palpable from the beginning, even though most of them were strangers to each other, because they are all connected by military service. 

No matter if this was their first trip to see the monuments constructed in their honor or their third, each agreed this trip was the most special because they did it with others who understood the sacrifice of serving. 

Mail Call

A few hours into the trip, the Veterans were treated to a “Mail Call.”  When deployed, mail calls were a very special time for soldiers. It was a cherished and memorable opportunity to hear from loved ones while serving in Vietnam.  

Each guardian reached out to family, friends, and fellow Veterans who may have served with the honored Veteran, soliciting letters for the mail call. Strangers and even school children helped with preparing letters and notes to the Veterans. 

Mail Call letters from family and friends to Russell Collins. DeWayne Grice

Special thanks to students from Bulloch County who prepared letters for each veteran on the trip.

Bulloch Schools included:

  • Mattie Lively Elementary
  • Julia P. Bryant Elementary, Mrs. Fennell's 2nd grade class
  • Mill Creek Elementary, Jeneane Brown, Media Specialist coordinated


  • Girl Scout Troop 30209

Mail call was one of the most powerful moments on the trip for the veterans and the guardians. As the veterans read through each of the letters, each one was overcome with emotion. They read letters of thanks and appreciation for their services from strangers and from the ones they love the most.

One of the Veterans on the trip was Rob Bridges. Rob was a Marine pilot and flew Marine One for President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush. 

Rob Bridges and Russell Collins. DeWayne Grice

During Vietnam, one of his assignments was to drop mail bags onto ships. He described how the soldiers would line the top deck waiting on the mail bags to be dropped. This was his first Honor Flight trip. He was moved by how incredible this experience was and described it best.

“Doing this trip with fellow veterans is pretty special,” said Rob Bridges, Lt. Col. US Marines retired. “Each of us lived the history and have the stories, many of which continue to be locked deep inside of us. Experiencing this trip with these men and women is much like attending a Sunday school class and learning that the teacher was Jesus.”

The Memorials

After a long day of travel and a restful night, we gathered again at 0700 for breakfast and the day's briefing. We were joined by a local tour guide who would lead the tour of all the major military monuments in a single day.

Lieutenant General John B. Morrison addressing the Veterans thanking them for their sacrifice and service. DeWayne Grice

The WWII memorial was the first stop. It was here we met Lieutenant General John B. Morrison and members of his command staff. General Morrison addressed the Veterans and welcomed them “home.” He then shook each of their hands, posed for pictures, and thanked them personally one-by-one for their service to our country.

Lieutenant General John B. Morrison greets fellow Cavalry member Russell Collins. DeWayne Grice

Even though the temperature was cool and it rained most of the day, their hearts were warm and spirits were high. 

We continued to visit:

  • The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
  • USN Museum & Memorial
  • Women in Military Service to America Memorial
  • Arlington National Cemetery
  • Tomb of the Unknown
  • FDR Memorial
  • Korean & Vietnam War Memorials
  • Lincoln Monument
  • IWO JIMA Memorial
  • Air Force Memorial

Guardians and Honor Flight Savannah leadership participated in a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown. It was a moving ceremony that the Vets agreed was a powerful moment for each of them.

Honor Flight Savannah members laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. DeWayne Grice

Veterans' Experience

Each of the Veterans from Statesboro shared with me some of their most special moments about the trip.

“I have been to memorials before, but this was different. Doing it with fellow vets made it special,” said Bulloch County native Paul Akins, Jr.  “I was able to see my classmate David Deloach’s name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. He lost his life six weeks after getting to Vietnam. That was special."

“Meeting the 3 star General was a highlight of this trip for me, along with a mail call,” said Jimmy Hodges. “The letters were a surprise, but I will always cherish the ones from my wife and children.”

This was Jimmy Hodges' first time visiting the memorials. He was really overwhelmed by the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Wall.  He pondered how lucky all of the Veterans on this trip were to return home and survive the war.

L-R: Jimmy Hodges with Paul Akins, Jr. DeWayne Grice

For Jeff Hurst, this was his first time seeing the memorials, and he too was touched by the comradery. 

“This trip reinvigorated my patriotism again. It is humbling to see the sacrifice of so many. The Tomb of the Unknown was touching,” said Jeff Hurst. “I was also able to find the name of a childhood friend, David Burgess, who died in Vietnam.” 

Hurst is planning on coming back again as a guardian and encourages his friends and fellow veterans to experience an Honor Flight trip.

Lieutenant General John B. Morrison with Jeff Hurst. DeWayne Grice

Russell Collins has visited memorials before, but this was the first time he was able to do a rubbing of the name of a friend he lost in Vietnam. 

Russell Collins locating friends name on the Vietnam Memorial . DeWayne Grice

Students from Mill Creek Elementary provided each veteran with a note pad with plain pages and pencils so they could do the rubbing. Even though it was raining pretty hard when we visited the Vietnam Memorial, you could see the veterans with these student-provided notepads sketching the names of friends and family members lost in Vietnam.  

Russell Collins rubbing friend and fallen soldiers name from the Vietnam Wall using a pad donated by Mill Creek Elementary students. DeWayne Grice

“It was so wonderful to connect again with my fallen friend, Howard W. Jones, sketching his name on the pad provided by the students,” said Russell Collins. “This trip has been very special being able to join my Vietnam brothers and sisters for this experience. I have made many lifelong friends on this trip. It was very special having a close friend as my guardian as well.”

Honor Flight Savannah

Larry Spears, the founder of Honor Flight Savannah said each trip costs around $37,000. The non-profit Honor Flight Savannah raises the money for the trip through the generosity of individuals, organizations, and businesses. If there is a shortfall, Larry and other members of the board often make up the difference personally.   

Since founding Honor Flight Savannah in 2008, they have taken over 1,400 to Washington, D.C. Initially the trips were done as day flights, which required the Veterans to get up very early and meet at the airport. They would fly to Washington, D.C. and spend the day visiting the memorials and return that evening.

“The original trips by air provided for a very long and exhausting day. We made the decision to travel by bus instead of plane and spread the trip over three days, plus a dinner meal on Thursday evening before the veterans depart on Friday. This also gives the Veterans time away from their daily lives and allows them to spend time again, one more time, with fellow veterans,” said Larry Spears

“Thanks to a very dedicated board of directors and my wife Marion, who serves as lead on many of the trips, we have been able to touch many veterans' lives.  We make sure they are properly thanked and appreciated for their heroic service to our country through this experience.”

If you want to learn more about taking an Honor Flight trip as a veteran or a guardian or if you would like to support the organization financially, CLICK HERE to visit Honor Flight Savannah’s website.