GAYLORD — Two decorated veterans from Gaylord — Lawrence "Gator" Howard and Jonathan Turnbull — will be part of the Mid Michigan Honor Flight Mission #13 on June 7.
Howard and Turnbull, who are friends, bring a compelling history that besides service to the country includes personal acts of sacrifice and valor. They also can provide a valuable insight into the unique bond that military service bestows on its participants as Memorial Day approaches.
The goal of Mid-Michigan Honor Flight is to transport veterans like Howard and Turnbull to Washington to visit the memorials dedicated to the sacrifices they have made.
Howard and Turnbull will visit the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam Wall memorials. The pair will also experience Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier and see the Changing of the Guard, the Women’s Military Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and the Air Force Memorial.
Lawrence "Gator" Howard
Howard said he has never been to Washington so he will be taking in the monuments and memorials for the very first time.
He served in the U.S. Army from 1972 until 1996. He has made over 300 jumps and was part of the 101st Airborne and 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite airborne light infantry combat formation within the United States Army Special Operations Command.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial promises to hold special significance for Howard.
"I have a brother who is on the Vietnam memorial that I have never seen before so it will be very inspirational for me," he said.
His brother, Robert, was killed in Vietnam in 1969.
What will Howard be thinking as he reads and then reaches out to touch his brother's name for the first time?
"At this time I really don't know. I do know it will touch me very hard and bring back a lot of memories of him and I. I have other friends who are on the wall too. I am glad that my wife (Jeanie) will be there to help support me," Howard said.
The visit to Arlington National Cemetery will be an interesting stop for Howard.
"I found out from Joe Messenger (owner of Gaylord Funeral and Cremation Service Inc.), that I could go to Arlington and get buried for free," he said. "He told me I was eligible because I have a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts.
"As much as I would love to (be buried in Arlington) and honor my country, which I have fought for and defended for America's freedom, I have selected to be cremated and stay with my wife," he added.
Howard would encourage those who have not served in the military to think about this on Memorial Day.
"As veterans we appreciate you coming up to us and saying thank you for your service," Howard said. "I always say thank you but you need to thank the families of those who have not returned. Those are the ones we need to thank the most."
After his family moved to Gaylord, Turnbull graduated from Gaylord High School in 2005. He became a cadet at the United States Military Academy in West Point, graduated and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
While serving in Syria in 2019 on what was more of a humanitarian mission than a military one, a suicide bomb attack outside of a school killed three U.S. soldiers and severely injured two others, including Turnbull. Forty civilians were also injured.
Turnbull spent the next two years recovering from his injuries while enduring 22 life-changing surgeries. Given little chance of survival, Turnbull relied on his wife, Samantha, and religion to eventually return to Gaylord with a message of hope and inspiration, which is detailed in his book "Zero Percent Chance: A Tribute to the Heroes of Cross-functional Team Manbij: a Soldier’s Memoir."
For Turnbull, the honor flight is another way to connect with his fellow soldiers.
"It's a great opportunity to get together and share similar experiences and build a network that veterans can rely on," he said. "I am excited to go to Arlington National Cemetery and visit the graves of family members, and soldiers we served with to honor them."
Unlike Howard, Turnbull has already seen many of the monuments and memorials when he was stationed in the Washington area and while recuperating from his injuries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Still, the trip will offer an emotional outlet for Turnbull.
"It will provide for emotional healing for me being able to sit down with the brothers in arms that I served with," he said.
Turnbull would like those who haven't served in the military on Memorial Day to think of the families of veterans who have passed away.
"I encourage everyone when they go to a cemetery to lay a wreath to remember there are people who are not buried next to a soldier that served. I ask people to pray for the families of the soldiers who have died and to remember they are missing brothers, sisters, sons and daughters," he said.
This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: Gaylord veterans chosen for Mid Michigan Honor Flight trip