When Bob Petraits ’61 applied to take part in an Honor Flight, which provides veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War with a free one-day trip to Washington, D.C., to tour the city’s war memorials and nearby Arlington National Cemetery, he never thought he would be selected. Most of the recipients of the trip are World War II or Korean War veterans, so he mostly forgot about it.
In March, he was thrilled to receive word he was selected to be a participant in May on Honor Flight 30 out of Indianapolis. Petraits had been to D.C. with his wife, Gayle, a few years ago, but that trip could barely compare to the Honor Flight he just took.
Petraits said he did indeed feel honored at every step of the trip. The day started with breakfast in a high school gym accompanied by his oldest daughter, Amy, as his guardian. (The program requires a veteran to have a younger family member or friend to accompany them on the trip and assist them as needed.) The 85 veterans and their guardians took a bus to the airport, where they sailed past security and immediately boarded their flight.
“What was so neat was we didn’t have to wait on any lines,” he said. “We just walked right through and got to our plane.”
The group arrived in D.C. at 8 a.m. and were immediately welcomed as heroes.
“When we got off the plane and got into the concourse there, there were people lined up on both sides cheering us,” Petraits said. “That was kind of awesome because if you ever talk to any Vietnam veterans when they came back to the States, it was the exact opposite. … So having people on both sides, you walk down the middle of them, and they would cheer us, they wanted to shake our hands. I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool.’”
The participants then boarded charter buses with a police escort that got them through any congested traffic and to their stops on time. The veterans visited the World War II Memorial, and many of them, including Petraits, had their photo taken next to the Indiana pillar. Eleven other Honor Flights from other states also were there that day, and those members took photos at the pillar representing their state, Petraits said.
Next, they visited the U.S. Air Force Memorial and saw the garden dedicated to those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon – two places Petraits had not seen on his prior visit. Then they toured the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, featuring the flag raising at Iwo Jima. Petraits was a Marine, doing one 13-month tour in Vietnam and being honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1967. They also visited the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Vietnam War Memorial.
Petraits said he was glad he had more time on his first visit to the Vietnam Wall to locate the names of friends killed in action in the war. The second trip was still meaningful, especially since the majority of the veterans on this Honor Flight were fellow Vietnam veterans. The most touching experience was their visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.
A primary reason veterans are accompanied by a younger relative and not their spouse is so their guardian can push the veteran’s wheelchair should he or she get tired and need a break from walking during the whirlwind tour, Petraits said. He wondered how many veterans would need to have wheelchairs in Arlington due to the distance of the tomb from the parking lot. Much to his surprise, however, the group was delivered by their charter bus right to the steps at the foot of the memorial.
Even though it was his second trip to the tomb and witnessing the changing of the guard, he said he was still struck by the solemnity of the occasion.
“It brings tears to your eyes,” Petraits said.
By the end of the day, the group was exhausted, and about half of the veterans had resorted to wheelchairs, he said. But the honors weren’t over. As the group got ready to board the plane, each veteran was handed a large manila envelope stuffed with letters written by family as well as strangers. Petraits said he spent most of the return flight looking through the letters and several more hours the next morning.
The biggest surprise came at the school where they had met earlier that day. When they drove up, two fire trucks with ladders extended held a huge American flag. Then, when they entered the school gym, he was overwhelmed by the families, friends, and strangers welcoming the group back to Indianapolis. His daughter carried an oversized cutout of him in his Marine uniform as he entered the gym with his name announced over the loudspeaker.
“I almost broke down crying because it’s so overwhelming,” he said.
Petraits said he is very grateful to the Honor Flight program and the chance to visit D.C. with his daughter on her first trip to the nation’s capital. He has two other children, a son and a daughter, and five grandchildren plus his wife’s five grandchildren. So getting to spend time with her alone was special.
“It was good education for her plus we got to spend some quality time together,” he said. “It was just good for both of us to be together, and she could enjoy it just as much as I did.”
Petraits spent most of his life in the Indianapolis area. He grew up in Speedway, a suburb on the west side of the city, until his father was transferred to New Albany, bringing him to Providence as a sophomore. His family moved back to Indianapolis while he was still trying to make his way through the University of Cincinnati. He left college after his sophomore year and within six months received a letter he should report for his physical for the draft. A friend convinced him to visit the Marines recruiting office, and although his friend wasn’t accepted and was later drafted into the U.S. Army, Petraits did enlist and was later stationed in Vietnam.
After returning to Indianapolis, he eventually settled into a career driving 18 wheelers over the road and locally while also operating a Christmas tree farm in Pittsboro with his first wife, who passed away just prior to his retirement in 2000. He said going through her death was difficult on him and his children, who were then in their 20s, but they were able to work through it. He met his current wife while he lived in Florida, where he moved after selling his interest in the tree farm. She convinced him to move back to Indianapolis several years ago, and they stay busy visiting their children and grandchildren.
As for the Honor Flight, it’s an experience he will long treasure.
“It was just a memory I’m going to have the rest of my life,” Petraits said. “I feel lucky I was able to get to go.”
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