WASHINGTON — It was a welcome to our nation's capital meant to be remembered.
On Wednesday, more than 130 women veterans from East Tennessee packed into an airplane headed for Washington, D.C. There, they had the chance to visit the memorials built in their honor.
The flight marked a first for HonorAir Knoxville, which escorts veterans from East Tennessee to the U.S. capital so they can see the memorials built there honoring people who served in the military. It was the first time the organization took a trip dedicated solely to women, and the veterans were sent on a mission to see monuments built in their honor.
The one-day trip to Washington was a long time coming after the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic postponed the special trip.
For many, it was a trip back in time. For Peggy Norton, it was a celebration nearly 70 years in the making.
In the final days of the Korean War in 1953, then-19-year-old Norton joined the Navy and trained to be a meteorologist.
"I loved doing the weather and plotting the maps and seeing the pi-ball up and all that stuff. I loved it," Norton said.
She said it was her love of the military that steered her to service, knowing -- as a female -- she would be outnumbered.
"We had maybe two to three women at the most, and the rest were men," she said.
One of the first stops on Wednesday was the Air Force Memorial. For Brenda Blizzard, it was one man who inspired her to join the Air Force. He was captured at the start of the conflict.
"He was living there as a missionary teaching English to Koreans, and they took him captive and held him for three years, and he survived that and went to become an Air Force chaplain," she said.
Blizzard enlisted in 1977 as a helicopter mechanic. She rose through the ranks over her 13 years in what was a man's world. On this day, she was surrounded by fellow female trailblazers.
"I can't put it into words... it's just so special to see a lot of women -- so many that have something in common with me," she said.
Blizzard was talking about women like Carmella Lawson. The Blount County native's 25-year career in the Air Force started in 1990. As a pilot, she traveled to 80 countries, deployed to the desert and took part in humanitarian relief missions
"I didn't really have too many people telling me you can't do that. You just go do it. That's kind of the way I looked at it, and do it better than anyone around you, whether they are male, female... whatever," Lawson said.
At the Air Force Memorial, Lawson recognized more than just the monument.
"Being here with women who came before me and I'm standing on their shoulders, you know? I mean they've already broken the barriers down and done the things that have allowed me to become a pilot," she said.
The group spoke of their memories as the special day went on, but few words were spoken at the World War II Memorial. For them, it was a time to remember and reflect.
Then came the much-anticipated visit to the Military Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetary. It is the only historical repository in Washington that is dedicated to documenting their service.
"I feel we have arrived to where we should have been a long time ago... how many women served in the services," veteran Beverly Sligh said.
After a day full of memories old and new, HonorAir Flight 31 received a hero's welcome home. Planned just for them -- the trip back home included a mail call: letters to each of them from loved ones and strangers.
"That was awesome! It was awesome! I was so glad I did this. I'm, sorry it took two years, but we did it!" Lawson said.
It was a salute to the 142 women and three generations of female veterans who represent three million women who have served the country in our military.