Northeastern Honor Bus shows vets they're not forgotten
Vietnam veteran Barry Rudisill talks about the Northeastern Honor Bus event. William Kalina, 717-505-5449/@BillKalina
Students have to be ready as early as 6 a.m. to welcome veterans for breakfast before the Northeastern Honor Bus trip.
Some veterans wander in early and say, "I was just so excited I couldn't sleep," said staff adviser Duane Swartz.
The biannual trip to Washington to visit the the World War II, Korean and Vietnam war memorials is Northeastern School District's "thank you" to the veterans.
"I just feel like it's the right thing to do," said student organizer Megan Sweitzer. "Not all of them got the proper welcome home that they deserved."
Sweitzer and other student volunteers are gearing up for the school's spring trip on May 11, and veterans are still welcome to sign up.
The school's Nov. 17 trip drew more than 80 veterans with service spanning from World War II to active duty.
The experience: "Duane offers so much in the way of history," said Vietnam veteran Barry Rudisill, who attended one of the past honor bus trips.
Rudisill, 70, said he learned a lot and it was a special experience because at the memorial wall he was able to do rubbings of the names of his classmates who were killed in Vietnam.
Sweitzer, a four-time honor bus volunteer, said 94-year-old World War II veteran Calvin Leiphart comes on every trip, always bringing candy and taking pictures with everyone.
"That man is probably in better shape than all of us," she said. "He walks that whole trip like a champ."
The group also watches the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, which is a high point of the trip, Swartz said.
Transportation alone costs $3,000 each trip. Add the T-shirts, a framed photograph of the group at Arlington and a mailed DVD of photos, the total cost falls between $5,500 and $7,500.
But Rudisill said the extras are "part of what makes the trip so special."
Swartz receives donations from local groups to help with costs, including all meals for free — provided by local auxiliary and VFW groups in Mount Wolf, Applebee's and Mission BBQ.
Honoring his father: The school sponsored its first trip in May 2011 after Swartz heard about a similar initiative in Mechanicsburg.
Though his father — a World War II veteran — was no longer alive, he realized he could honor him by offering the honor to other veterans.
The trips expanded to include Korean War veterans in 2013 and Vietnam War veterans in 2014 — which enabled one student to share the experience with her father before she graduated.
Rudisill described a veterans' motorcycle club that escorted the group out to the Maryland line, with veterans lined up waving flags as they departed.
"Being honored as veterans was a unique experience because, as you know, the veterans coming back from Vietnam were not well-received in the country," he said. "That kind of made up for that shortcoming."
Last fall, Swartz opened up the trip to all veterans and active duty service members.
Anyone who has served or is now serving is welcome, he said, and no one should feel excluded, especially those who were never deployed.
"I just want the veterans to know that they’re not forgotten and that they’re definitely appreciated," he said.
Affecting students: Swartz said the trip also is very meaningful to students — some who have gone up to six times.
Three students involved with the trip decided to go into military service, including Sweitzer, who swore into the Army National Guard in February.
She had been interested in a military and nursing career since eighth grade, but after having Swartz as her ninth grade history teacher and participating with the honor bus, it solidified the decision, she said.
"When you see tears in the eyes of your students at the end of the day," Swartz said, he described it as "one of those 'gotcha' moments," where he knows it had an impact.