The Veteran's Honor Flight
The logistics in planning this event are totally mindboggling. Eighty veterans 87-95 years old arrive at the Kalamazoo airport at five am, along with a guardian who has taken a four-hour training either in person, or as in my case, online. We’re given ID, breakfast, boarding passes and wheelchairs. The airport was buzzing with volunteers. The veterans are beginning to hear the mantra of the day: Thank you for your service, sir.
The jet is a charter waiting for us. There is no security line, ....
You’d be amazed how quickly these volunteers can load a plane. Our jet has no runway position; we are first, priority. As we taxi, fire trucks give us a water salute. Water hits the plane, a rainbow appears in the pink dawn, a promise of a wonderful day, and we’re airborne.
One hour and eight minutes later we land at Washington Reagan Airport where we have landing priority. No circling the airport. Firetrucks greet our plane with a water salute.
Military in uniforms line the gangway and salute; in the terminal cheers, flags, handshakes and thank you. The veterans are quiet, wondering at all this appreciation. Absorbing it.
D.C. Honor volunteers in bright shirts shake hands with the veterans and say “Welcome to Washington” and “The Nation’s Capital is proud to welcome you.” Children wave signs saying “Thank you for your service.” It’s quite overwhelming. Even my blind dad is very touched. He can’t see it, but he “gets it.” The wheelchairs get right- of-way in the concourse. We load into five buses designated by the colors of our I.D. lanyards, a great plan to help us all remember our bus! The names on the I.D. are written large enabling strangers to address the veterans by name. That means so much. What a kind thing to think about.
Each bus has a “bus captain” who takes role every time we load, helpers, and a tour guide. Our tour guide, a veteran himself, retired from the National Archives has a lot of history and inside knowledge about his city as well as military history to share.
Our convoy of five buses is surrounded by police escort, lights and siren. Park Service trucks with lights flashing stop side traffic. Our buses don’t stop for red lights or stop signs as we go through the city from memorial to memorial. The veterans are the VIP Guests of our Nation’s Capital and treated as dignitaries. No waiting in lines. Box lunch and dinner boxes are waiting for us at two of the memorials.
Our first stop is the WWII Monument where the entourage has a formal photo taken. Here my daughter and her husband who live in the DC area, surprised their grandpa and pushed the wheelchair around the monument. Plenty of convenient bathroom stops are part of the plan and volunteers carrying cold bottles of water follow us everywhere, looking after every need. Our buses cover a three-day tour of DC in one day!
At the end of the day we’re back at Washington Reagan Airport. Our departure gate is decorated and the personnel wear Uncle Sam hats. Flags wave and music plays. Everyone in the concourse is invited to gate 15 to see us off. More handshaking and flag waving, with people in uniform lining the gangway clapping and helping with the wheelchairs; another water salute and the privilege of immediate take off. The veterans are going home.
Mail call, military style, was a surprise for the veterans on the flight home. Each veteran’s name was called up and down the aisle handing out their mail packet filled with cards, letters and thank you from friends, family, and people they don’t know, such as school children in Ohio. They also receive souvenir dog tags, a pin for their caps, and a star cut from a retired American flag saying they would never be forgotten. I tear up thinking about it. I know Sunday afternoon my mom read that mail to my dad and he relieved that moment, and cherished the surprise personal gift. He probably reminisced about the mail he received when he was overseas. There were no phone calls or email.
One hour and eight minutes later we’re back in Kalamazoo and have a five-minute bus ride to Wings Stadium where the families, friends, volunteers and it seems all of Kalamazoo gather outside and inside. Flags fly, bagpipers pipe and when we parade through crowd and through the doors we’re greeted with shouts and cheers that rival those of Wings fans at a hockey game. The parade follows the concourse around the arena lined with people carrying signs and babies. Little children reach out to say thank you to men older than their grandfathers. The little “poppy princess” gives them a poppy, and “miss liberty" hands them each a flag.
My dad must have asked me half a dozen times, “How’d they get all these people to come out for something like this. I wouldn’t have thought people would come to something like this. Why would they? They don’t even know us. That’s really something, isn’t it?” There’s wonder in his voice.
Yes, Dad. It really is something. I’m hoping to find an honor flight somewhere in North Carolina where I might volunteer. I can help bring that wonder and joy to someone else’s dear dad or grandpa, and let them know they will not be forgotten. It was so affirming to see how many young families brought their school-age children. The children respectfully spoke to the veterans and shook their hands, thanking them for their service. It wasn’t a convenient thing to do with young children. It was suppertime and went into late evening, it was crowded, parking lot looked like a nightmare from where I stood. But there they were, talking to their kids about their freedom and privileges, and the men and women who insured that for them. It was a blessing for all of us.
This is such a magnificent idea, such a thoroughly American-red white and blue kind of an event. My Aussie friend would say "It's so totally Yank-style."
I’m so glad Dad was able to go on this flight. Dad and all the other World War II veterans are at the stage in life of losing so many of their personal freedoms. It’s kind that we can show them that their legacy is bigger than personal; it’s America. Thank you for your service.
The Honor Flight organization in DC that is the official welcomer, wear bright shirts that have a quotation on it of Will Rogers. It says “We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap when they go by.” So yes, Dad, it really is something. America standing on the curb clapping when the heroes go by.