A World War II veteran sits on a bus, unable to move, overtaken by emotions. He's not sure he can face the task at hand. The memories of the day he lost his arm overwhelm him. He has never been able to talk about it. Suddenly, other veterans surround him. They urge him to brave the Iwo Jima memorial, the battle where he was wounded. Encouraged yet nervous, he leaves the bus and visits the memorial. As he gazes at the site, he finally has begun to gain closure about his experiences. This story is what Honor Flight represents.
Honor Flight Network, an all-volunteer charitable organization, provides a valuable service to elderly U.S. veterans by giving them a free trip to the Washington D.C. war memorials. These flight missions are carried out by 130 regional hubs across the country. In 2018, they transported 20,958 veterans.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 640 WWII veterans die each day. The World War II memorial was opened in 2004. By then, a lot of the veterans had grown older and had become physically and financially incapable of going to their own memorial. Before the memorial was finished, many veterans weren't getting the honor they deserve. Honor Flight seeks to address both of these issues by making their main objective giving World War II heroes the honor they deserve before they all leave their country.
The details of each trip vary from group to group across the nation, but the main focus is visiting the memorials. The following is an example of a typical trip. The first day is an orientation where the guardians and veterans meet together. Honor Flight gives preference to veteran applicants in the following order: veterans who are terminally ill, those who served in World War II, Korean War veterans, and more recently, Vietnam War veterans. A Guardian is a volunteer, sometimes family, who travels with the veterans to watch over them and help them with any needs.
Four trained paramedics travel with them on every flight. On the actual day of the flight, they meet at the airport early in the morning and go through security together. They receive breakfast at the gate and board the Southwest airplane. As the plane rolls down the runway, firetrucks line up and shoot a water cannon salute over the plane. They fly to Washington D.C. and exit the plane to a military receiving line. Volunteers guide them through the airport to the busses that will take them to their war memorials. Once they are loaded on the busses, police officers ride alongside the bus and escort them to their first stop, the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. The next three memorials they visit are Women in Service, Iwo Jima, which highlights the marines, and the Air Force Memorial.
After lunch, the veterans are taken to the World War II memorial, the highlight of the trip. Sometimes, members of Congress and local TV stations are there to honor and meet the veterans. At times, World War II re-enactors are present at the memorial to interact and thank the veterans for their service. The reenactors spark the memories of the veterans, reminding them of when they were younger and what life was like in the 1940s. Then, they all then take a group picture and afterward go to the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and their final stop, the Korean War Memorial. When it is over, they all board the buses that will take them back to the airport. The quiet mood in the busses provides the veterans with a time of recollection.
Before getting on the plane, letters expressing thanks and honor from people, such as family and friends, are given to the veterans. When they return to their hometown, the veterans are greeted with signs of thanks and a huge crowd thanks them and honors them, while music plays.
The reactions of the veterans are very solemn. When they look upon the memorials, they become very silent and shed some tears as they reflect on past memories. Many of the veterans have to be convinced to come on the flights because they don't think they deserve it, but once they are there, they form bonds with the other veterans and guardians. Visiting these memorials gives them the closure they need to handle their experiences in the war. Being around people who have shared the same feelings allows them to tell stories about their time in the war. Many veterans feel honored in a way they never felt before. Also, they are able to grieve for their fellow friends who died in battle.
One veteran, who was in the Navy during the Vietnam War, was given a day off from his duties on the ship. While he was gone, another soldier took his place. Later, the boat was destroyed, and everyone on it was killed. At the memorial, this veteran found the name of his replacement on the wall and rubbed an imprint of the name on a piece of paper. Nancy Riordan, an active member of Honor Flight of Central Florida, explained, "we believe our Veterans have honored us with their service, and it is our mission to honor them."
In Orlando, where I live, veterans travel with Honor Flight of Central Florida. Their website will connect you with fundraising events and upcoming flight information. If you are interested in welcoming the veterans back from their trip, the 2019 spring flight dates are May 4th and June 15th. Fall flight dates will be announced at a later date. My family and I have participated in the past, and it was great seeing the smiles on the veterans' faces. My aunt took her dad on an Honor Flight mission in Colorado, and I wrote letters for their mail call.
As Harry S. Truman said in his address to Congress in 1945, "Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices."