Serving our veterans and active military is a pillar of Republic’s community responsibility, and we delivered on that in a big way last week. On October 23, our crews had the honor of flying 100-year-old Jack Eaton – the nation’s oldest living sentinel who guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – roundtrip from Detroit to Washington to watch guards add his nameplate in the barracks at Arlington National Cemetery. It was a long time coming, too: Eaton’s name had been missing from the roster board for decades, a correction he witnessed first-hand thanks to tickets donated by American Airlines and first-class service by Republic.
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“It’s unbelievable. I’ve waited so long for this, and I’m really enjoying it,” Eaton told Republic Associates covering his trip. “I know I’m going to keep this in my mind the rest of my life.”
The itinerary was a ten-hour whirlwind, starting with Eaton’s early departure from Detroit Metro Airport (DTW) and a water-cannon salute arrival to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). As he deplaned at DCA, he was welcomed by an overflow crowd of military and civilian fans, patriotic music and a swarm of local and national media. He quickly took center stage with his lively dance moves, crowd hand-shakes and photo ops as he left the terminal.
“I never expected all this,” he said. “The water cannon salute, the people lined up in the runway and in the airport. And the music. Like I always say, ‘When the music starts, my feet want to move.’”
A police escort whisked Jack, his family and Mid-Michigan Honor Flight members to Arlington, where U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) and current sentinels led the centenarian to the underground barracks for a ceremony in which he helped screw his nameplate into the roster boards.
“It’s an honor to be amongst all these names,” Eaton, a resident of Flint, Mich., said of the nearly 700 former sentinels listed on the display. “I’m just glad to see my name up here permanently.”
Eaton then joined hundreds of on-lookers to watch the famed changing of the guard. It was a familiar relief routine, he said, though more dramatic and rigid than when he guarded during World War II.
After Arlington, Eaton and his party were escorted on a VIP tour of the Pentagon, including the area damaged in the 9/11 attacks, the offices of the Secretary of Defense and the Defense Department’s press conference briefing room. From there, it was back to DCA for the trip home.
“I still can’t believe this is all happening,” he said during the Pentagon tour. “I don’t think I did that much. I was just doing what I was supposed to do. It overwhelms me.”
Eaton, who served as a sentinel from 1938 to 1940, and later repaired airfield machinery in Europe during World War II, discovered his missing nameplate after visiting the Tomb several years ago. To prove his tenure (his service record was destroyed in a government fire), Eaton had to share Tomb knowledge only sentinels would know, like details of a hidden chapel and unique sensory cues sentinels use during watch.
The trip was the culmination of years of work to right a historic wrong, said Robert Green, president of the Mid-Michigan Honor Flight, which organized the effort. “Jack is a special person … he is so humble. To be able to share it with him, (his family), Republic Airways, American Airlines – it shows you that our veterans are appreciated and their service to our country is appreciated.”
Indeed, this was a special trip for a special man. In addition to our Maintenance and Dispatch teams working behind the scenes, thanks go out to our Crew members for their exemplary service: Inbound DCA-based crew Capt. Brian Peterson, First Officer Justin Longosky, and Flight Attendants Denise Athey and Melanie Atkinson), and outbound CMH-based crew Capt. Jonathan Gresham, First Officer Daniel Floyd, and FAs Nicholas Prodoehl and Jennifer Miller.
“It was definitely a moment to remember,” said DCA-based FO Justin Longosky, who was flying reserve the day of Eaton’s morning flight. “I shook his hand, and he joked around a little bit. You couldn’t tell he was 100. I sure hope I’m in that great of shape when I’m that old.”
The flight was extra special, Longosky added, because his fiance is an Air Force reservist, and she was thrilled to hear about his experience. “That’s the great thing about Republic. I’ve only been with the Company a few months, and I get to do something like this. You never know what you’ll get on reserve assignment, but to help fly a hero was simply amazing.”
For Jack and his family, the trip was a priceless opportunity, too, and it all started and ended with Republic. Thank you for your service, Jack — we salute you!