"I was lost, but you all found me."
Mrs. Amelia Robinson Jones spoke those words Sunday afternoon as I held her hand. She was seated at the front of a large room off the garden at Hospice Savannah. A line of well-wishers waited their turn for a picture with this frail 96-year-old woman. Sgt. Amelia R. Jones, World War II veteran, was ready for "the best day of my life."
Officers of the 3rd Infantry Division moved among the crowd, brass gleaming, smart in their dress blues. Local dignitaries settled into their reserved seats. Outside the open double doors, the 3rd ID band played patriotic tunes. Then, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) walked in and made his way toward Mrs. Jones.
Is it any wonder that Amelia Jones felt as if an earthquake had jumbled her life? And that she had indeed been found by a host of strangers, who dragged her out of her quiet routine and commenced to make a fuss over her?
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Back in September, the folks involved in Hospice Savannah's "We Honor Veterans" program encouraged Mrs. Jones to accept Honor Flight Savannah's offer of a free trip to Washington, D.C. Prior to her visit to the World War II Memorial -- and a pivotal encounter with historian John W. McCaskill -- Mrs. Jones had no idea that she qualified to be an original Tuskegee Airman.
As fate would have it, McCaskill is one of the few people in the country acquainted with an arcane bit of military history: any service member who supported the 99th Pursuit Squadron during WW II qualifies to be a Tuskegee Airman.
Mrs. Jones enlisted in 1943 at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. As a member of the Women's Army Corps' 118th Base Unit, Sgt. Amelia Jones supervised the postal service at Godman Air Field in Kentucky. Godman Field was home to the 99th Pursuit Squadron. The Tuskegee Airmen.
Amelia Jones was in. We gathered in October to witness her induction into the Hiram Mann chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen.
A few months after her induction, McCaskill caught wind of the awarding of a Congressional Gold Medal to a female Tuskegee Airman in Atlanta. "Why not Miss Amelia?" he asked.
His question set in motion a machine involving Sen. Isakson's office, the 3rd Infantry Division, the Hiram Mann chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen and Hospice Savannah.
All involved worked as quickly as possible. At age 96, Mrs. Jones suffers from COPD, though she was never a smoker.
When the medal was approved, Hospice Savannah offered to host the ceremony. Last Sunday, April 19, Brig. Gen. Jim Blackburn, 3rd ID's deputy commanding general, tucked his notes into his pocket and headed for Hospice. Sen. Isakson woke up at 4:30 Sunday morning to get on a plane to Savannah, and Mrs. Amelia Jones donned her red Tuskegee blazer and matching tie.
And there we were, waiting in line before the ceremony began to touch the hand of history.
When he took the podium Sen. Isakson, a former sergeant himself, said everyone knows that sergeants make the military run.
"The officers give the orders, but the sergeants move the dirt," he said. And Amelia Jones had to dig through some entrenched redoubts in her day.
The Congressional Gold Medal, one of the two highest civilian awards in the United States, is "awarded to persons or groups who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient's field long after the achievement."
As an African-American female in the 1940s, Amelia Jones encountered barriers that few of us can imagine. But obstacles were no match for her determination and courage. Her bright spirit illuminated the path toward respect and equal treatment for blacks and women alike.
When Sen. Isakson presented her the Congressional Gold Medal, the journey that began at Hunter Army Airfield in 1943 came full circle
Mrs. Amelia Robinson Jones might think we found her, but she was never lost. All the while, she was quietly leading the way for the rest of us.
Carol Megathlin, formerly of Americus, is a Georgia writer who now lives in Savannah; firstname.lastname@example.org.