Dan Finnerty – Contributing Writer
Jack Joseph Dendy finally got to say good-bye to his best friend – more than five decades later.
Dendy, who is 74 years old, grew up in the Goldmine area of Macon County in the 1960s. Graduating from Franklin High School in 1967, like so many other young men in this country, he stared the Vietnam War in the face. In 1968, Dendy, along with his best friend from youth, Lawton (Arvil) Keener, enlisted in the Army and subsequently were sent overseas in October 1968, one week apart. While both were there in the jungles of Asia, Private First Class (PFC) Keener was killed in combat Jan. 12, 1969, and received a Purple Heart. Like many of the 58,219 others who died during the eight-year conflict, PFC Keener was flown home and buried, but Dendy was not able to come home for the funeral and never saw his friend again.
In December 1969, Dendy’s tour ended and he returned to Western North Carolina, attended school in Kentucky, and then began working in the funeral home business. He married his wife, Carolyn, who hailed from Hayesville, and spent many years working at the Bryant-Grant Funeral Home in Franklin before semi-retiring in 2012.
It was primarily because he wanted to see his best friend’s name on the Vietnam War Memorial wall in Washington DC that Dendy agreed to apply for a Blue Ridge Honor Flight. In October 2022, after becoming aware of the program and a prompting from his first cousin, Myrtice Trent of Hendersonville, he applied for a flight.
In 2004, an Ohio-based physician’s assistant, Earl Morse, started Honor Air, as it was then known, as a way to help aging veterans visit war memorials at the nation’s capital. In 2005, Jeff Miller, a Hendersonville, N.C.-based dry cleaning company owner, learned of Morse’s efforts and was inspired. Miller took Morse’s idea and grew it – with the help of U.S. Airways and American Airlines. In February 2007, Morse and Miller merged their organizations to create the Honor Flight Network (HFN) and the North Carolina piece of it became the Blue Ridge Honor Flight (BRHF) program.
What began as a primarily World War II-focused project has since evolved to include Korean and Vietnam War veterans. In the ensuing years, Miller has overseen thousands of veterans sign on for the opportunity to be honored for their service and to have the privilege of being flown to and from the mall in D.C. which houses many memorials, including those honoring the nation’s wartime defenders. Since 2005, the nation-wide HFN has transported 273,543 veterans to and from Washington, DC: 856 WWII, 2,960 Korean War, 16,903 Vietnam War, and 1,081 from other conflicts. In 2022 alone, 21,800 veterans participated in the program.
While Dendy was initially denied last October, a resubmission resulted in a seat on the April 30 flight. Trent was also Dendy’s guardian for the event and viewed the opportunity to participate as special.
“I got to be his [Jack’s] guardian and it was a thrill and an honor.”
She also said that because the guardians were with veterans, they were able to go through the TSA security lines at the airports in expedited fashion, which she found “fascinating.”
Once Dendy found his childhood friend’s name on the wall, Trent was able to get a picture of him pointing to Keener’s name.
“He didn’t talk much during that time, and I was crying so I didn’t help anything,” she said. “We saw another man who found someone he knew [on the wall] and who just stood and saluted for a long time.
“I am going to volunteer to be much more active in the [Honor Flight] program,” she added. “Now that I’ve actually gone on a trip, I realize they have an organization with 133 hubs that support the Honor Flight program across the country.”
Each hub also has its own logo design that veterans wear on their flight to help differentiate the various areas of the country from which they originate.
Dendy expressed his amazement in all that he saw and experienced.
“There were on-ground volunteers everywhere. The magnitude of the work that the organization put into the flight is unbelievable,” he said.
Each participating veteran can bring at least one “guardian” to assist with transport to and from the flight and around the mall memorial area in D.C. In 2022, 18,709 guardians were also transported, and since 2005 that number has reached more than 200,000.
Veterans organizations from Macon County, Hayesville, Murphy, and Asheville assisted with the event on April 30. Patriot Guard Riders, who are made up of various veterans’ groups within the area, and a group known as Western Carolina Veteran Jeepers, provided many of the flags for the “welcome back” reception at Asheville Airport. Franklin residents David and Starlett Henderson, Rick Litchford, and Sheri and Wayne Chandler made up part of the Riders group that included 11 vehicles, which left the Carpenter Community Building that Thursday evening, and picked up 10 more vehicles along the route and about 45 volunteers. The convoy drove to Asheville and were on hand when the BRHF returned to the airport with its 90-plus veterans and around 150 support personnel that made up the guardian contingent. The flight assistance also included paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMT) along with the flight crew.
Dendy expressed appreciation for the veterans who flew with him on the Honor Flight.
“One more thing that made the trip special was being able to go with all these other veterans,” he said. All the men on the flight were from North Carolina.