Honor Flights take area WWII vets for a whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C.
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 30 - As the nation prepared to celebrate Independence Day, 21 World War II veterans found new meaning in the word thanksgiving.
They visited memorials in Washington, D.C., on the inaugural trip sponsored by Greater St. Louis Honor Flight, which flies veterans on the daylong journey free of charge. And everywhere they went -- from the water cannon salute by fire trucks at Reagan National Airport to the flag-waving crowd that cheered their arrival in the terminal to the shy, solemn children who came up to shake their hands -- the message was simple but sincere:
Thank you for serving our country.
Jennifer Jackson, who chairs the local organization, recalled how one of the vets, Val Arnold, summed up his experience:
"I felt like President Arnold all day today."
From a dozen veterans who flew from Ohio to see the World War II memorial in 2005, the Honor Flight program has grown quickly: 33 states now have 78 hubs, and more than 11,000 veterans visited the capital last year. But with 1,100 WWII vets dying every day, and waiting lists that are growing longer all the time, the demand still outstrips the number of flights that donations can pay for.
The St. Louis hub, for example, has its second trip planned for July and a waiting list of 300 people.
For those lucky enough to be chosen for the first flight on June 24, the day was packed but powerful. Their flight left Lambert Airport at 6:40 a.m.; they arrived back home at close to 9 p.m.
Their longest stop was at the World War II memorial -- their memorial. The 90-minute visit included a harsh collision between the time they defeated Germany, Italy and Japan and the heightened security of today; the site was evacuated for a brief time while a bomb-sniffing dog could investigate a suspicious package left behind.
Then it was back on the bus for a series of memorials and other memorable sights: Lincoln, Vietnam, Korea, Air Force, Marines, Arlington Cemetery, plus a bus tour that featured drive-bys of the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Jefferson Memorial, the Pentagon and more.
Box meals were served along the way, and the journey was narrated by Al Bailey, a regional director for Honor Flight, who could reel off everything from the dimensions of the standard marble tombstones at Arlington Cemetery to the names of the servicemen who planted the iconic flag on Mount Suribachi.
And one member of the trip recalled the lesson he learned in the service long ago:
"Never pass up a bathroom because you never know when you'll find another one."
Some strode proudly, others were pushed in wheelchairs, but wherever they went, the veterans stood out from the rest of the capital crowd by their Honor Flight T-shirts that carried a message that left no question who they were and what they had accomplished:
"If you can read this, thank a teacher. ... If you can read this in English, thank a VETERAN!"
"Remembering the price of freedom. ... Honoring those who paid the price."
The thanks came from everywhere and in many forms, from formal handshakes to slaps on the back to smiles and nods and silent acknowledgement of the debt that current generations owe to the greatest one. Even airport security paid a tribute to their special status: Going through security at the D.C. airport on the way home, the veterans didn't have to take off their shoes.
The day ended with a special mail call -- letters written to the veterans by their family and friends, one more opportunity to thank them for their service from those who love them most.
The constant attention, from strangers and loved ones alike, clearly delighted some and puzzled others, but all of the vets seemed to appreciate the recognition of what they had accomplished, belated though it may be.
Nate Silverman, 92, summed up what he and others felt this way:
"I don't know what to make of it. It's nice."
At the Iwo Jima memorial, a leader of a group high schoolers who were members of the group People to People had come up to Silverman with one of her students and, like many others earlier in the day, said simply:
"She wants to thank you."
And so she did.
For More Info
The trips provided free of charge to veterans by Honor Flight cost about $400 each and are funded entirely by donations. To sponsor a veteran's trip or to help defray the trip's costs, send tax-deductible contributions to:
GSL Honor Flight
PO Box 261
St. Peters MO 63376