The partial government shutdown did not keep HonorAir Knoxville from completing its 15th flight on Wednesday, or hamper the hundreds who gathered at McGhee Tyson Airport to greet the more than 120 veterans upon their return home.

So far, the organization has taken more than 1,600 East Tennessee World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials built in their honor. On Wednesday night, crowds of friends, families and complete strangers crowded into McGhee Tyson Airport, some from as far away as Louisiana, to greet the 126 Korean War and World War II veterans after their trip.

HonorAir Knoxville is a program established and presented by Prestige Cleaners to honor veterans. Covenant Health has been a major sponsor of each of the flights taken to date.

The one-day, all-expense-paid trip via a US Airways-chartered flight includes tours of the World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Marine and Air Force Memorials. In addition, the group saw the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

Knoxville resident Billie Nordike, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1955, said the last stop was one of the most moving.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better trip,” Nordike said, adding that the seven service memorials they visited were all opened up to the veterans. Sites such as the Lincoln Memorial and several shops remained closed, however.

“They moved the barriers back so we could get in (the sites),” Nordike said.

In fact, Nordike said he wasn’t sure he was even sure the trip was even going to happen until Monday night.

One turned 97

“They called Monday evening and asked if I still wanted to go and I said ‘Yeah, I want to go,’” Nordike said. He added that only three of those on the flight were World War II veterans, while the rest had served during the Korean War.

Knoxville residents Harriet and Fares Schlank said one of those veterans turned 97 years old Wednesday while the second would be turning 91 today. The couple said while they didn’t know anyone on the flight personally, they couldn’t think of a better way to spend the 33rd anniversary of their marriage.

“This is our date night,” Fares Schlank said. “And we couldn’t think of a better thing to do. And there’s a lot of great things to do in this town.”

Troy Ingram and Eugene Robertson, two dairy farmers from Louisiana, said they happened to be at a Dairy Farmers of America meeting in Knoxville when they heard of the veterans’ return. So they decided to stop by the airport, miniature American flags in hand, to greet these heroes.

“I’m just proud to see this many people that showed up,” Robertson said, adding that he didn’t see one person leave even after the flight’s arrival was delayed nearly an hour. “That means a lot to our country.”

Ingram said about 30 other farmers joined them at the airport.

“We support our veterans,” Ingram said. “We want you to know that.”

Blount welcome wagon

Blount County residents and fellow Korean War veterans Leroy Rogers, 83, Toby Miller 89, and W.H. Finger, 88, were all passengers on HonorAir’s 10th flight. They’ve been coming back to greet fellow veterans ever since, and that tradition didn’t change Wednesday.

All three carried a photo album of that trip and recalled their time together fondly.

“It was really worth the trip,” Finger said. “We appreciate everything that was done to make it perfect.”

Eddie Mannis, president of Prestige Cleaners and deputy mayor of Knoxville, is chairman of HonorAir Knoxville. Retired Col. Joe Sutter, U.S. Air Force, is the flight commander, and Jim Cundall is the flight coordinator. Forty volunteer escorts flew to assist the veterans.

Blount County veterans scheduled for the flight were: Melvin Edinger, James Hall, John Beardsworth, Frankie Bounds, Homer McDowell, William Wylie, Homer Breeden, Charles Kern, Jimmy Debord, Charles Denyer Sr., James (Jim) Flynn, Cal Kirkland and Anthony Vonklock.

Another HonorAir Knoxville flight is planned for the spring of 2014. However, according to Mannis, future flights will depend on the level of funding the program receives from the community.

“Each flight costs about $60,000,” he said. “Although our major sponsors and Prestige donate substantial amounts of money to the program we need additional donations to make the flights a reality. Prestige also provides all the administrative support to the program so every dollar raised is applied directly to the cost of the flight.”

HonorAir is a 501(c)(3) organization so all donations are tax deductible. Anyone wishing to support the program should send checks to HonorAir Knoxville, 7536 Taggart Lane, Knoxville, TN 37938. Donations can also be made via PayPal on the HonorAir website at