SALEM, Ohio – Millions of fingers have touched the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Millions of feet have walked the circle of the National World War II Memorial. Millions of shadows have paused among the statues in the Korean War Memorial.
The memorials are a tribute to our nation’s veterans and a reminder of their sacrifices. But unfortunately, the very veterans these memorials honor are often unable to see them. Health problems and money issues keep them from making the trip to Washington D.C. and many die without ever seeing their memorial.
But a program called Honor Flight is working to change that. Through Honor Flight, U.S. veterans can fly to the nation’s capital for a one-day visit at their memorials and the trip costs them nothing.
Local level. The first Honor Flight in the Youngstown area is set to take off Sept. 8 from the Akron/Canton Airport with 100 veterans on board. Although that flight is full, local Honor Flight coordinator John Eaton hopes there are more to come.
“We hope to have at least one more out by the end of the year,” he said.
Applications are accepted on a continuing, first-come, first-served basis for the Honor Flights. However, World War II veterans and any terminally ill veterans are given the highest priority.
The nonprofit program does not receive government funding, but operates entirely through individual donations. The Sept. 8 flight is fully funded, but more donations are needed in order to make further flights possible.
Ready to fly. Eaton, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1070 Commander, is looking forward to taking an Honor Flight out of Columbus in June.
“It’s already changing me in more ways than I can imagine and I can’t wait to go,” he said.
The feedback from veterans who have already taken the trip keep coordinators like Eaton working.
“Once you’ve made the trip, your life is basically changed irrevocably,” he said.
For some veterans, the trip brings closure and the chance to finally say good-bye to fallen comrades. For others, it’s simply a dream come true to see the monument constructed in honor of their sacrifices.
Room for all. Honor Flight is designed to accommodate disabled veterans with the help of volunteer guardians. Guardians pay their own way and escort veterans on the aircraft. They also accompany veterans to the memorials and escort them back during the return flight.
Flights, tour bus services, scooters, wheel chairs, oxygen and meals are free for all veterans.
In 2006, 891 World War II veterans were able to visit the National World War II Memorial through Honor Flight. This year, Honor Flight hopes to take 5,000 veterans from across the U.S. to that same memorial.
The Honor Flight program originated in Ohio in 2005. Since then, it has spread to North Carolina, Utah, Michigan and North Dakota.
An idea is born. The concept for Honor Flight came from Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force major. After his retirement in 1998, Morse was hired by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to work in a Springfield, Ohio, clinic.
When the National World War II Memorial opened in 2004, Morse asked his patients if they would ever travel to see it. Many thought they would with the help of a friend or family member.
When the veterans returned for their follow-up visits the next year, Morse discovered most hadn’t made the trip. It became clear that physical difficulties and financial constraints would prevent them from ever seeing the memorial constructed in their honor.
As a private pilot and member of the aero club at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Morse decided there had to be a way to get these aging veterans to Washington D.C.
Early in 2005, he talked with 150 members of his aero club about the possibility of flying veterans to see their memorials. His plan had two major components: The pilots would have to assume total responsibility for renting the aircraft ($600-1,200) and they would have to personally escort the veterans around Washington D.C.
In May of that year, six pilots and 12 veterans headed to the nation’s capital on the country’s first Honor Flight.
Important trip. As the year progressed, interest grew so much that commercial airplanes were used so more veterans could participate. More than 130 veterans were taken to Washington D.C. that first year and since then, the program has grown steadily.
“It’s the most innovative program I’ve seen for veterans in a long time,” Eaton said.
And hopefully, it can keep going as long as it’s needed, he added. Because Honor Flight wants to ensure that the fingers and feet and shadows visiting the Washington D.C. memorials belong to those who are honored there.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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