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Honor Wagon to ferry vets' remains at Pittsburgh International Airport

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 12:24 a.m.
A Western Pennsylvania veterans group is retrofitting an airport baggage cart to transport the remains of veterans being shipped through the airport.
A Western Pennsylvania veterans group is retrofitting an airport baggage cart to transport the remains of veterans being shipped through the airport.

When Pittsburgh International Airport workers John Wakeley and Mark Chamovitz realized a change in military policy meant returning caskets would be transported from planes to a hangar to be met by family members, they didn't approve of using an old baggage cart.

“When the (military) told me they were going to put them on a regular baggage cart, it sent shivers down my spine. That's not a dignified way to end a fallen hero's journey,” said Chamovitz, 55, of Mt. Lebanon, an airport operations duty manager. “(The carts) are not in the greatest shape.”

The pair came up with a plan to refurbish a baggage cart into something to honor the remains of fallen soldiers. On Friday, airport officials plan to show off the Honor Wagon during a special ceremony. The Honor Wagon will escort the remains of any military member returning to Pittsburgh International.

Previously, returning caskets were loaded into a hearse on the tarmac while family members watched. Chamovitz said the military wanted to move that ceremony inside a hangar, where the ceremony could be private, away from moving aircraft and out of the elements.

The airport donated a baggage cart, and Wakeley, a veteran, contacted his fellow members of the Beaver County Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 862 to help with the refurbishing. Several businesses got involved.

“I just feel strongly that fallen soldiers deserve better than being in the back of a pickup or on a raggedy, old belt. This will give them a little bit of honor when they come back,” said David McLaughlin, 50, of Butler, a veteran and plant manager of Ellwood City-based Hall Industries Inc. that helped build the Honor Wagon.

The refurbished cart is nearly unrecognizable. Its hollowed center has room for a casket to be placed on rollers. Plexiglass-like windows on both sides protect the casket while allowing it to be seen. The exterior is adorned with logos from all branches of the armed services and has 13 spear points on each side, signifying the original colonies.

The words “Never Forgotten” are inscribed on the rear.

“The flag-draped casket will be visible, and it doesn't matter what the weather is,” said Wakeley, 55, of Hookstown. “We just thought it was the right thing to do.”

Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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