North Charleston plans military veteran flights to D.C., next year

Joyce L. Hiers missed North Charleston’s Veterans Day parade, so she came to the Park Circle celebration Monday to thank all the veterans who were there. Buy this photo

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey used Veterans Day to announce that the city will soon start flying military veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars to see their memorials in Washington, D.C.

Boeing S.C. to honor veterans all week

Kevin Shroka was just a teen when he joined the Marines in 1967. He fought in Vietnam before returning to his native Charleston to work at the former Navy base.

Now 62, the Goose Creek resident is a mechanic in Boeing Co.’s 787 assembly factory. On Monday, in addition to his work duds, he wore a camouflage cap and a solemn expression.

Shroka said he decided to help raise the red Marine flag during Boeing South Carolina’s Veterans Day ceremony “for the people we lost in Vietnam.”

“This is a tribute to them,” he said.

The local plane-making campus kicked off a week of events to honor veterans Monday by raising the flags of each branch of the military, playing their anthems and hearing from their members, who now make up a quarter of the Boeing workforce in North Charleston.

Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Gregory Batts, a retired Charleston police officer, told the more than 100 people gathered between the three Dreamliner factories that while many Americans ignored the nation’s recent wars, they suited up and waged them.

“You are the 1 percent,” Batts said.

After paying special tribute to the Army on Monday, Boeing will hold ceremonies for the Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard on successive days this week.

Eileen Riccio served in the Navy from 1983 through 1987 before joining Boeing, where she’s now project manager in the IT business partner organization. Monday’s event, where she recited the history of the Navy, took her back a quarter-century.

“It helps me kind of remember, and I think it’s important we recognize that,” Riccio said.

The vets will fly for free in a fashion similar to the Honor Flights, the national nonprofit program that has taken thousands of World War II veterans to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in D.C.

“We have to recognize the wars that came after,” Summey said Monday.

Many younger veterans from Vietnam are now into their 60s, part of America’s fast-graying population, he said.

The first flight could go as soon as this summer. The size of the first trip would be limited to about 50 people, Summey said. They would be seated with other regularly booked airline passengers, meaning it would not be a special charter out of Charleston.

North Charleston previously has taken local World War II residents on similar trips, including to Washington, New Orleans and Parris Island. Veterans from Vietnam and Korea deserve similar recognition, Summey said.

City taxpayers would pay for about $25,000 of the effort, Summey said, while the other $25,000 would be raised from private sources, according to his initial budget. The trip would include an overnight stay, and travel around Washington and meals would have to be arranged.

For comparison, Honor Flight Lowcountry’s first charter flight in 2009 cost $55,000. It carried about 90 World War II veterans on a charter plane, plus their escorts and medical personnel, to Washington for the day, said Bubba Kennedy, the group’s chairman. They went up and back in one day.

Summey’s announcement came as more than 400 people gathered in Park Circle to remember America’s veterans.

Local estimates are that as many as one-third of North Charleston’s residents have family ties to the military, starting with those who moved to North Charleston decades ago to work at the now-defunct Charleston Naval Base and Shipyard.

Guest speaker Army Lt. Col. Vernon F. Lightner told the crowd that America has more than 4,000 communities and that locally created groups, drawing doctors, lawyers and others, could organize as committees, assisting vets as they come home.

Needs to be filled include finding jobs and housing or free legal work, he said.

“A team effort is what’s needed,” said Lightner, Southeast regional director of the assistance group Soldier for Life.

Some veterans Monday looked back on their service with fondness. “If the sub service called, I’d do it all over again,” said Navy vet Roy Massey, 74, of North Charleston.

Another Navy veteran, Leo Perez, 77, said the day has a lot of meanings, but the main one is “freedom.”

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