Traveling in the company of heroes

I’m beyond excited to report this week that, come this November, I’ll be accompanying the Honor Flight, which honors America’s World War II veterans for all of their sacrifices by transporting our heroes to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill. The flight, for these vets, is absolutely FREE and is covered by donations. Guardian fees of $500, for those accompanying the veterans to assist them, are not covered by donations.

I’ll be going in the role of writer with the Badger Honor Flight out of Greater Madison, and have permission to photograph the experience and services, but more importantly, I’ll also be assigned as a “guardian.” On average, about 30% of the veterans on any flight are in wheelchairs, and those on oxygen likely would be accommodated. A medical staff accompanies the flight, but my responsibility (after training) will be to assist the veteran(s) I’m assigned to. This is a real honor for me, as typically, medically trained or active-duty military personnel and veterans who have previously participated in a flight are given top priority and serve as leadership members; others may include family members (also trained for this flight).

From the Honor Flight Network website:

“The Honor Flight Network program was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician assistant and Retired Air Force Captain, to honor the veterans he had taken care of for the past 27 years. After retiring from the Air Force in 1998, Earl was hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs to work in a small clinic in Springfield, Ohio. In May of 2004, the World War II Memorial was finally completed and dedicated in Washington, D.C. and quickly became the topic of discussion among his World War II veteran patients.

“Earl repeatedly asked these veterans if they would ever travel out to visit THEIR memorial. Most felt that eventually, somehow, they would make it to D.C., perhaps with a family member or friend.

“As summer turned to fall and then winter, these same veterans returned to the clinic for their follow-up visits. Earl asked if they accomplished their dream of visiting the World War II Memorial. By now, for most of the veterans he asked, reality had settled in; it was clear to most that it simply wasn’t financially or physically possible for them to make the journey. Most of these senior heroes were in their 80s and lacked the physical and mental wherewithal to complete a trip on their own. Families and friends also lacked the resources and time to complete the three- to four-day trip to the nation’s capital. The majority of the veterans had given up all hope of ever visiting the memorial.

“Earl was also a private pilot and a member of one of our nation’s largest and best aero clubs located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. In December of 2004, Earl asked one of his World War II veteran patients if it would be all right if Earl personally flew him out to D.C., free of charge, to visit his memorial. With tears, Mr. Loy told Earl that at his age he would probably never get to see his memorial otherwise, and graciously accepted the offer.

“Earl posed the same question to a second World War II veteran. He, too, cried and enthusiastically accepted the trip. In January of 2005, Earl addressed about 150 members of the aero club during a safety meeting, outlining a new volunteer program to fly veterans to their memorial. There were two major stipulations to his request. The first was that the veterans pay nothing. The entire aircraft rental ($600 to $1,200 for the day) would have to be paid solely by the pilots. The second was that the pilots personally escort the veterans around D.C. for the entire day.

“After Earl spoke, eleven pilots who had never met his patients stepped up to volunteer. And Honor Flight was born.”

My father was a proud Seabee in the Navy. The one thing he wanted me to bequeath my daughter was his uniform. My husband is a 23-year Navy veteran. My daughter served as a police officer in the United States Air Force. My uncle is a 20-plus-year vet of the Air Force. My other uncle was a decorated member of the Blue Berets (Army paratroopers). You could probably point out those characters in your family, too. Most of us share a heritage of U.S. military service.

So yes, we are such a military family, though I (patriotically) remain staunchly anti-war.

This trip means a great deal to me, though I’ve already visited all of the memorials in Washington, and knelt on graves at Arlington, Va. I’ve cried, doing a rubbing of my friend’s name, posted on the Vietnam War memorial. Seeing the park anew, however, through these men’s and women’s eyes, after the honor flight is first greeted at the Pentagon – the vets in their blue jackets and caps, guardians in their red jackets and caps – I can’t imagine that my gratitude for their service and sacrifices will not spill over in the form of many tears throughout the day. But that’s okay, as I’ve been assured.

I’ll keep you posted, as I go through the training and board the plane and walk with the ghosts in Washington among the memorials, on the experience so that you, too, can share it with the men and women who went when their country called.

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