As noted in an earlier article, the mission of the Honor Flight organization is to provide round trip transportation for veterans of the WWII, Korean & Vietnam eras who wish to visit their memorials in Washington DC. The day trip is provided completely free of charge to the veteran in honor of his/her service to our country. Trained guardian volunteers provide assistance and accompany the veterans on their flight. It was my honor on June 20, 2017, to serve as a guardian to a Vietnam veteran from central Illinois.
A meal (free to the veterans) was provided the evening before the flight by the North Enders VFW in Springfield. Bus transportation assignments in Washington DC were made at this meal and the shirt/hats for all veterans and guardians were distributed.
The count of veterans for this flight was 5 WW II (blue shirts), 15 Korean (yellow shirts), and 55 Vietnam (maroon shirts). With at least 1 guardian for each veteran plus volunteers of the Honor Guard organization serving as tour captains, the charter flight was full with approximately 150 passengers.
The day of the trip started early — check in time at the Springfield airport was 4:45 AM, with the flight taking off at 6:15 AM. We landed in Washington DC at approximately 7:45 AM. The walk through the terminal from the plane to the buses was emotional. Employees of the Ronald Regan Washington National Airport, as well as passengers from other flights and representatives from local police and fire units, met the veterans and applauded and thanked them for their service. It was very emotional for many of these men who did not receive this recognition and praise when they returned from their tour of duty many years ago.
The first stop of the day was at the WW II memorial where a group photo of all the veterans was taken. Other stops for the day included the Vietnam and Korean memorials, the Lincoln memorial, the National Air & Space Museum, and the Marine and Air Force memorials. The final stop of the day was at Arlington Cemetery where we witnessed the lowering of the colors (flag) for the day, as well as the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The soldiers guarding the tomb gave a special recognition to the veterans with a special “click step” in their march that only a soldier would recognize (I didn’t until my veteran pointed it out to me).
The experience of viewing these memorials with individuals who served our country during each era was rewarding and so difficult to put into words. Watching men in their 60s, 70s & 80s tear up as strangers applauded and thanked them for their service, seeing their emotional reactions to viewing names of friends on the Vietnam wall or watching them experience and talk about memories of their time in combat, and observing many of them who were in wheelchairs for most of the day stand at attention when the colors were lowered AND seeing every one of them (standing or wheelchair bound) saluting the flag — so priceless.
The bus ride through Arlington Cemetery was very sobering. There are over 400,000 graves of individuals who have died in combat fighting for the United States of America. It was breathtaking to see precision row after row of tombstones of soldiers who have died in combat from the Revolutionary War to the present.
There was no time for naps on the flight home. The veterans enjoyed a military “mail call”. Guardians were requested to contact family & friends of the veterans and ask for cards and letters to recognize their service. Every veteran received a bag of mail that included not only that from family & friends, but also from local VFWs, American Legions, civic groups, church groups, and school children. An honor guard greeted the veterans when we deplaned in Springfield around 9:30 PM that evening. Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner was at the head of the welcome home contingent and personally shook the hand of each veteran and thanked them by name for their service. He also shook the hand of each Guardian and thanked us for our support to the veterans that day. The veterans were overwhelmed by the massive crowd of family, friends, and members of various civic groups, boy scout troops, churches and the general public who came to welcome them home.
The experience for me as a Guardian is one that is so difficult to describe. It was rewarding, emotional, and memorable even though it was a long, busy, and exhausting day. I will certainly volunteer my services again as a Guardian if asked to do so.
If you are interested in serving as a guardian, or if you are or know of a veteran who resides in the central/southern Illinois area and is a veteran of one of the three eras noted above, I encourage you to obtain an application from the Land of Lincoln Honor Flight website.
Guardians are required to pay their own way for the day (currently $450), but the trip, including transportation, food, entry fees (if any), etc. is free to the veterans. The Honor Flight organization is a 503c non-profit organization and is funded by donations only (no government funding is provided).
Words just cannot describe the experience of this day. It was my honor to volunteer my time to help these deserving veterans enjoy this day of recognition and reward for their service.