It was a Veteran’s Day like none he’d ever experienced. Harvey Merino took to the skies, along with 42 other Native American veterans, for an honor flight from Reno to Washington, D.C.
It was his first time ever to visit Washington, D.C.; the experience was somewhat overwhelming.
In the space of two days, Merino, along with 40 other Native American veterans from Northern Nevada and two others from Northern California, visited war memorials in the nation’s capital as well as the National Museum of the American Indian.
The veterans ranged from service during World War II to present day conflicts in the Middle East.
“We toured Arlington Cemetery, saw the changing of the guard; we visited all the war memorials; we met a Navajo code talker,” Merino said.
While the Honor Flight program has held events since 2012, according to its website, this year’s flight to the capitol by Native American veterans was the first flight of its kind.
The Honor Flight had room on the Southwest plane for a few more veterans from Northern California. Merino got the call and decided to go.
The trip expenses were paid for — the plane tickets were donated by Southwest Airlines, for example. There were other donors as well for accommodations and expenses. The plane they flew on was painted in honor of the veterans — and named Battle Born Nevada One.
According to the Reno Gazette Journal, Robert “Truckee Bob” Tilton, president of the Pyramid Lake Veterans and Warriors Organization, helped organize the flight. They flew the day before Veterans Day and were surprised at the sheer number of people who came out to greet them.
“People lined up to shake our hands and thank us for our service. Lots of kids. Little kids too,” said Merino. The lines of people shaking their hands started in Reno at the airport and continued in Washington, D.C., at the memorial sites.
On their way back to Reno, they flew first to San Diego. There were a number of Native Americans to shake hands with there as well.
Merino served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, from 1968-1973, with temporary duty stations in Vietnam, Thailand, Tucson, Arizona, and Orlando, Florida. He enlisted in the Air Force after taking the ASVAB in high school and showing an aptitude for mechanical engineering.
During his four-year tour of duty, Merino worked on various aircraft, including U2 spy planes and other recognizance aircraft.
The experience has clearly had an effect on Merino. He’s hoping other states will also begin to do honor flights to Washington, D.C.
According to Kevin Gover of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Native Americans make up the largest ethnic minority to serve in the armed forces.
The experience, “Made you feel good about doing your time in the service. Makes you more aware,” said Merino.
Merino’s experience is hardly over. He acknowledged the pleasure of making new friends with a shared common experience. Email and mail lists are being made to keep the veterans from the honor flight in contact with one another.
While Merino had not been actively involved in veterans activities in recent years, the honor flight has sparked renewed interest — and memories of the time he served.