Companies seeking new ways to work with the local communities in which they conduct business may want to consider a program that celebrates the men and women who have served their country – and often endured experiences the vast majority of us could not even imagine having in our lifetimes.
It was a special early Monday morning for two of my uncles, Edward Kaye (World War II, Marines) and Michael Kilijian (Korean War, Navy). These two veterans, aged 89 and 88, respectively, boarded an Allegiant Air flight from Fresno, California to Baltimore, MD. They were joining 68 veterans, including three women (and one married couple), on an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. During a whirlwind tour, across the nation’s capital, they will visit various sights, including the memorials dedicated to the war theaters at which they performed their wartime service. They will return from their trip tonight.
The costs of their trips are paid entirely by the Honor Flight Network, which since 2005 has been sending World War II, Korean War and now, more Vietnam War veterans to D.C. so they can share memories with other veterans from across the U.S. “Can you believe it? I don’t have to pay for a thing!” Edward (“Eddie”) reminded me several times in the run up to his departure yesterday morning.
Both Eddie and Michael applied for the Honor Flight program earlier this year. The generosity of both private citizens and businesses meant their wait to have this experience was not too long.
And for the vast majority of these veterans, an Honor Flight is a blessing, as many U.S. veterans from the 20th-century wars either lack the financial means, or physical ability, to visit Washington D.C. and see the city’s memorials on their own. In 2004, around the time the World War II Memorial was completed, Earl Morse, a physician assistant and former Air Force Captain, saw the need to have a program to allow these war veterans to have such an experience. The first Honor Flights were on small planes flown by volunteer pilots; since then, the program has expanded rapidly.
The Honor Flight Network includes over 100 local hubs across the U.S. that in turn coordinate with regional businesses and community groups to raise funds for these trips.
National sponsors of the Honor Flight network includes Southwest Airlines, Hilton and Breitling. Here in the San Joaquin Valley, local sponsors include the supermarket chain Food4Less, which at yesterday’s departure ceremony at Fresno/Yosemite International Airport announced it donated $28,000 for this trip. The efforts of the national and local Honor Flight groups are complimented by other local organizations in the Baltimore-Washington region, including those who recruit citizens to greet and cheer the veterans upon their arrival at the Baltimore or greater Washington area airports.
Time is of the essence, as the Honor Flight Network estimates about 640 World War II veterans pass away daily. Now almost all of them are in the nineties, with Eddie among the few exceptions as he enlisted during the waning days of that war. Most chapters prioritize World War II veterans, though Korean War vets are also given priority to participate in these trips as many are well into their mid- to late eighties. Terminally ill veterans are also moved higher in the queue.
These veterans do not go alone: each of them is assigned a “guardian,” who travels with them so that they can tend to their needs during the duration of the quick three-day, two-night trip that includes stops across D.C. and Arlington, Virginia. Each contingent of veterans also includes three nurses and a doctor.
The enthusiasm at the airport departure hall was contagious, and for the veterans, the experience roared off to a great start as the local Honor Flight Network chapter operated as a well-oiled machine. Check-in was simplified, professional photos were taken, and local television stations had sent reporters to cover the departure. A bugle reveille announced the flight’s boarding through a dedicated Transportation Security Administration (TSA) line, local officials gave words of thanks, and then, a sea of red Honor Flight jackets, caps and duffle bags made its way through the concourse. “Off on a trip of a lifetime,” said Michael, a retired teacher and part-time actor, as he doffed his cap for what will surely rank among the most rewarding 48 hours in recent memory.
Image credit: Leon Kaye