Korean War Marine veteran Elutercio “Steve” Lopez, Jr., 84, of Madera, shakes hands with an active duty Marine at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Lopez, who was awarded the Purple Heart for his service, was one of 65 local veterans who participated in the Central Valley Honor Flight. (For The Madera Tribune)
When then 18-year-old Elutercio “Steve” Lopez, Jr. of Madera and some of his buddies headed down to the local recruiting office to enlist in the armed forces in 1951, he didn’t quite know what he was getting into.
“Really, I was just trying to get away from home, you know?” Lopez said with a chuckle.
A bit of a self-proclaimed bad boy, Lopez was the first of his friends that day to approach the Marine Corps recruiter to enthusiastically sign up.
“He put up his pad, and so I wrote my name down first,” Lopez said. “Then he said, ‘How about the rest of you?’”
His friends weren’t as quick to the draw. At the last minute, the rest of the boys decided they should “talk it over with their parents.” When the sergeant asked Lopez if he’d like to do the same, he didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“Nah. I’m going,” Lopez said.
He never saw those guys again. Instead, he went on to fight in the Korean War, where he was awarded a Purple Heart.
Sixty-five years later, a now 84-year-old Lopez joined 64 other Korean War and WWII veterans June 27-29 on the 10th Central Valley Honor Flight, a program that provides them with free three-day trips to Washington, D.C.
The program’s goal is to give veterans “one more tour with honor” to visit the nation’s capital and see the monuments and memorials that recognize their service.
Over the last three years, the Central Valley Honor Flight has transported 667 veterans. Each trip, funded entirely through private donations, costs $180,000 dollars to execute and requires hundreds of hours of labor from volunteers, including a core team of medical professionals and veteran guardians who go on the trip.
Central Valley Honor Flight President Al Perry said that the flight offers veterans a chance for closure and also lets them know that they are appreciated.
“This trip shows them that residents of the Central Valley, who support us in donations, want to honor them in a way that says, ‘thank you for your service during the war.’” Perry said. “Whether you were in combat or not, you wore the uniform, you served the country and you dealt with those horrific issues in WWII and Korea.”
It’s an emotional trip to say the least. Tears welled in the eyes of veterans as they toured the Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and WWII, Korean and Vietnam War memorials. Some wore their dog tags; others carried photos of comrades killed or missing in action.
Lopez was joined by two other veterans from Madera: Navy gunner’s mate James Turney, 81, and Army PFC and acting corporal Gilbert “Gilly” Gallegos, 78.
“I’m really enjoying myself,” Turney said of the trip. “I’ve seen it many times in the news and everything else, but I don’t think you can grasp this unless you’re here. All the vets around here got taken care of real well. I’m kind of in awe about these teams here and how they do things to make the trip so smooth.”
At breakfast on the second day of the trip, Gallegos approached Lopez because he thought he recognized him.
“I spotted him,” Gallegos said. “And I said to myself, ‘He looks familiar, where have I seen him before?”
Gallegos had, in fact, seen Lopez several times at the Madera Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall, Post #1981, where Lopez acts as the house manager. But before this trip, they’d never had the chance to speak to one another.
Nearly 3,000 miles away from home, the two Maderans chatted and discovered mutual friends. Lopez even promised Gallegos a beer the next time they saw one another.
Upon arrival back at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, a crowd of over a thousand friends, family members and patriotic strangers had gathered to greet the servicemen with the warm welcome home they’d never received decades before. Tears rolled down the veterans cheeks as they took it all in on their way to baggage claim.
Yet, even among the celebrations and hullabaloo, the veterans of what has been called the “greatest generation” are extremely humble; Slow to share stories of valor, and quick to deflect praise. “Thank you for your service” is met with “It was my honor to serve.”
“This trip means a great deal to me,” Lopez said. “I gave my life to this great country and I love it and I’d do anything for it.”
Donations to the Central Valley Honor Flight can be made by mail or online. For information on donating or volunteering visit online at www.cvhonorflight.org.