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In the News
One Guardian's Perspective
The below was written by a guardian on one of our many flights this season. We thought this was well worth sharing.
WWII veterans are dying at the rate of about 1,000 per day! What a shame that so many of them die without getting to visit the great memorials that our nation's capital has in their honor! I was honored to be a guardian for Johnie, a resident of Washburn, Missouri on the October 12 flight for our heroes. Johnie is a true gentleman, and was very gracious and appreciative of the efforts made to allow him to go on the trip. I will talk more about Johnie later.
The flight on October 12 was one of at least six from around the nation that day. We saw others from Kentucky, Tennessee, Arizona, Wyoming, and Oklahoma. There is a tremendous amount of planning and coordination that goes into a flight. The day starts early and ends late, but it is packed with visiting and camaraderie and memories that can be had no other way. On this date, 74 heroes and 87 Guardians and staff members made the trip from Springfield on a chartered 737. The staff members were there around 4:15 am and heroes and guardians were to be there at 5 am. It was exciting from the minute you walked in the door as heroes met their guardians, buses were assigned, guardians and heroes were issued boarding passes and other needed items, then Krispy Creme donuts and coffee were served in the waiting area. TSA had reviewed the passenger list in advance and simply had all Honor Flight passengers bypass the normal inspection process.
Boarding is a long process because many of the heroes are unable to walk as briskly as they once did. Many chose to be wheeled to the plane, and others were just slow with the age and miles they have accumulated. For some, this was their first airplane flight ever! Many had gone to war and returned from war in ships. One had not flown since WWII and was excited to get to experience the power and comfort of the new jets. Finally, we were airborne and off on the adventure of a lifetime. I expected to see lots of them sleeping on the trip, but apparently there was just too much anticipation for that. They visited with each other and with their guardians, who many met for the first time an hour before. Other guardians included daughters and sons, grandchildren, and nieces and nephews. Guardians are assigned to take complete care of the hero for the day---physically and emotionally. For this they are issued a small backpack which contains information about each site to be visited, statistics about the war, ponchos for them both, sunscreen, a pen, and a package of tissues. During the trip, jackets, cameras, caps, and other personal items can be carried in this backpack to keep the hero from having to carry anything. At the end of the day, a special bond existed between the heroes and their guardians regardless of any previous relationships.
As the plane taxied out to the runway, 2 large fire trucks trained their hoses to form an arc for the plane to pass under. This is just one of the many displays of honor shown to the heroes that day. This was repeated again at Washington airport by the fire department there. Unfortunately, only those with window seats were able to see this, and in the rain it lost some of its effect.
On the flight, the flight crew was exceptionally gracious in their service to all of us. The pilot and co-pilot were both former military pilots. The attendants made sure that everyone got what they needed. As expected, the rest rooms were busy. Some of the heroes needed help finding the fixtures in the restrooms. Those who had never flown in anything but troop planes had quite an adjustment to make. The Honor Flight staff used the flight time to give welcomes and safety briefings, and to provide some information that would be needed throughout the day. KY3 has been a very active supporter of Honor Flights, and Steve Grant gave a welcome speech and a 'thank you' for their service.
The flight to DC took about 2 hours. Upon arrival and entering the terminal (which again took a long time), there were people there to welcome the heroes. They clapped and cheered and waved flags and played music. Most of the heroes smiled and said thank you. It seemed hard for them to comprehend that this was for THEM! Flags were posted along the route through the airport as guides, although there were people posted on most of the route as well. Many people cheered and shook hands with the heroes as we walked along. The buses were not ready for us to board, so we were assigned a waiting area. Here, there were hosts and hostesses who were quite kind in pointing out restrooms and seating.
The heroes were anxious to get going on the tour, and when the buses arrived there was some haste to board. Even though they are told that they should allow the guardian to assist them, they are fiercely independent and want to do things by themselves. One unfortunate hero fell at the curb, breaking a wrist and injuring his shoulder. The medical people treated him instantly and called for an ambulance. He was taken to a hospital where his wrist was set temporarily pending surgery. He joined the return flight later that evening and was taken to a Springfield hospital directly from the plane.
There were more than 20 wheelchairs taken on the plane to be used by the heroes. These all had to be moved from the plane to the buses, along with medical supplies and equipment, snacks, and other items for the staff. All of the buses were equipped with wheelchair lifts, but the lift did not work on one of the buses. This caused extra work to load some of the heroes or transfer them to other buses. A replacement bus was provided after the first stop to make loading and unloading easier. At each stop, the wheelchairs had to be unloaded for those who could climb onto and off the bus, aided or unaided. This was repeated several times during the day, but there was no complaining.
Johnie, the hero that I was guardian for, is quite active and needed almost no help. That allowed me to assist the staff and other guardians throughout the day with loading and unloading. It also allowed me to assist many of the wheelchair-bound heroes go to the restroom if their guardian was a female. The only times during the day that I felt I really should be right with Johnie was at the WWII memorial and at Arlington. Both of those are highly emotional and I told him I would be available unless he chose to be alone (I remember the first time I visited the Viet Nam wall that I wanted to be alone!). Other than that I was always with him on the bus and near him otherwise, letting him know when I was helping someone else.
On the trip from the airport to the first stop, a movie played that told about the WWII memorial construction and design. It gave facts about the war and the actual memorial costs and timing. Most of the heroes appeared to be more interested in watching the scenery than the movie. I believe it was beneficial to show it, and I am sure that they listened even though they appeared to not pay attention. I found it quite helpful to me and was able to answer several questions at the memorial from what I had learned. Our first stop on the tour was the WWII memorial. Even though it was raining, this was a highlight. Uniformed military members lined the entrance and saluted the heroes while bystanders clapped and cheered. The reaction of heroes seemed to be shock and amazement. Many of the heroes just stared at the enormity of the structure before starting to search out the writings about the countries or battles that they were involved in. Although they wanted to see everything, the rain made it so uncomfortable that many decided to leave early and find shelter. Having so many groups from so many states added crowding to the memorial and interfered, to an extent, from the personal value of it. It also made bus parking more difficult.
After reloading the buses, we went to the Iwo Jima memorial. Those who had been in the Pacific Theater were highly impressed with this part of the tour. We drove by the Pentagon and the memorial to those killed on September 11, 2001. Just driving by impresses you with the enormity of the structure. We stopped and unloaded at the Air Force Memorial. Many in the group had been in the predecessor of the Air Force, the Army Air Corp. The next stop was near the Lincoln Memorial and allowed visits to the Korean War Memorial as well. We also should have been able to visit the Viet Nam wall from this stop, but construction had it closed. A box lunch from Arby's was provided on board the bus during a time that allowed. There was always water available on the buses. Snacks were served at mid-morning and again at mid-afternoon.
Then it was time for a visit to Arlington National Cemetery with timing so that we could see the changing of the guard. There was an atmosphere of awe and respect on this visit. It is difficult enough to comprehend the thousands of white grave markers, but the precision of the guards and the guard change is nothing short of awesome.
After that, we headed back to the airport for the trip home. At the airport, we again were treated with great respect and appreciation to include flag waving and cheers. Again, TSA waved us on through!
Here was a delay. Our flight crew had flown to Springfield very early in the morning, then to DC. They had to have mandatory rest, and were late getting back to the plane, creating a longer than usual wait. Again, the staff served snacks! Then the heroes were treated to something they had looked forward to every day of their service 60 years prior--MAIL CALL! Each hero receives several letters. They receive them from students, other retirees, businesses, and interested parties around the region. Some are addressed to them individually; others to 'my hero' or 'veteran'. Here in the waiting lounge, some opened their mail and fully digested each letter carefully. Others saved theirs for later so they could be alone with it. By this time there was a lot of familiarity with each other, and visiting became more personal. Some who had not talked about their experiences since they became civilians after the war began talking about them. Others listened and then told their own side of the story. Few slept--very few, even though they were obviously tired.
Then the flight crew arrived. Those in wheelchairs were boarded and all of the wheelchairs loaded in the belly of the plane. The others boarded as rapidly as possible, but in reality it was slow.
The plane climbed into the clouds, and again the flight attendants were very courteous and polite and helpful. Beverages were served, along with hot sandwiches. There was a lot of visiting and storytelling. Some napped briefly. Then the staff gave each person on the flight a chocolate Hershey bar--something that the heroes had found extremely rare when they were at war.
At 10:15 pm we were on the ground and at the gate. Unloading was slow, because by this time many of the heroes needed wheelchairs just from being tired. But this was not a usual deplaning process. Police and Boy Scouts lined the walkway, saluting each hero. Flags were waving, and each hero was handed a small flag of their own. Then, entering the terminal we were met by a huge crowd of hundreds--cheering, waving, crying, clapping, smiling, hollering, hugging! They formed a walkway for the heroes to walk through, but the heroes by this time were in no hurry. They shook the outstretched hands. They hugged and wept. They smiled. Johnie had remained stoic and unemotional all day, but now he felt the love and admiration that was being poured out to him. He felt appreciated. A couple times he just stopped and smiled. He was speechless. Near the end of the human walkway, a large Shiner's band was playing patriotic songs--The Army Song, The Air Force Song, The Navy Song, The Marines' song, etc. Again, Johnie stopped and stared in apparent unbelief.
Two officers from the Viet Nam Helicopter Pilots Association recognized me and beckoned us over to have our photo taken in front of the Association Flag and the US Flag. They and I realized that these heroes are finally getting the welcome home that they (and we when we returned from Viet Nam) never got. The feeling of the moment was indescribable, and still is 24 hours later. A hero's welcome for some real heroes! Well earned and very much deserved. These 74 joined the small percentage of WWII vets who get a hero's 'Welcome HOME!' , however late.
With the band still playing and some heroes still coming off the plane, Johnie said, "I am ready to go home now". We walked silently to the vehicle and went home. I climbed into my bed at midnight - fully content and ready to sleep. The last expression I saw on Johnie's face was a huge smile!
Thank you Honor Flight Board, Staff, donors, and others! What a great blessing you have given to the heroes of the past! I can only imagine what emotions they have from that experience! God bless you!