In his 35-year broadcasting career, ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch has interviewed stars of sport, stage and screen, as well as presidents and generals. But a recent event topped all of that for Punch, who now works as a pit reporter on ESPN NASCAR telecasts.
On Oct. 9, Punch served as a volunteer guardian on an Honor Air trip from Knoxville, Tenn., to Washington, D.C., with 127 veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict.
After leaving Knoxville at 7 a.m., the flight landed in Washington and the veterans rode in two buses with stops at the Air Force, World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials.
“They were very emotional and tearful as they entered many of these sites and recounted stories of comrades they had lost in combat,” Punch said.
After driving by the Capitol and the White House, the group went to Arlington National Cemetery.
“The most special and memorable part of the day was the final stop at Arlington,” Punch said. “During the ceremony for the changing of the guard, even the 90-plus-year-olds asked to be helped out of their wheelchairs so they could stand, with me and others holding them, so they could salute the flag and the memory of those unknown who had lost their lives.”
The day finished at 9 p.m. back in Tennessee, where the Honor Air flight was met by thousands of people, with a military band playing the service theme songs as the travelers exited the plane to cheers.
Honor Air Knoxville has been conducting flights for veterans from East Tennessee for 15 years. Punch had wanted to join a flight previously, but with the trips being held on weekends, he was always busy covering something for ESPN. This flight was scheduled for a Wednesday and he got permission to arrive for the NASCAR event in Charlotte, N.C. a day late so he could take part in the flight.
“This was a day I will never forget,” said Punch. “I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to do marquee events in college and professional sports, and I’ve run with the Olympic torch in my hands, but nothing compares to being with these brave people from America’s greatest generation as they were honored for their service and sacrifice.”