“Our veteran heroes aren’t asking for recognition. It is our position that they deserve it.” — Honor Flight Network
By the time the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. was completed and dedicated in May 2004, many of the veterans of that war were well into their elderly years.
As a physician’s assistant at the VA hospital in Springfield, Ohio, retired Air Force Captain Earl Morse of Ohio was familiar with many local veterans. Through conversations with the vets, he realized many of them wanted to see the new memorial but either couldn’t afford it or were physically unable to embark on a trip to the capital alone.
Still a licensed pilot, Morse began personally flying veterans to see the memorial. One by one, he would cover the cost of renting a plane, fuel and food — anything they needed for the day — and take vets to Washington, D.C., to see their memorial.
As he realized the demand for his service, Morse enlisted other pilots to volunteer their time, expertise and money to escort veterans to D.C., and the Honor Flight Network was born.
By 2006, demand was so high the organization began to use commercial flights, rather than small planes. Honor Flight has since teamed up with several airlines to provide chartered flights.
Its mission: “To transport America’s Veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends.”
What Honor Flight Means for a Veteran
When he first heard about Honor Flight, Norm Lemke told me, “I’ll tell you what, truthfully, I didn’t even think it was worthwhile. … Old guys like me, they don’t think too much of anything.”
Lemke, 95, is a World War II veteran who fought in the battle of Okinawa. He lives in Appleton, Wisconsin. While he’s been to Washington, D.C., he had never seen the memorial created to honor his service.
His cousin, a veteran who’d taken the flight, insisted. He finally convinced Lemke this was an opportunity he couldn’t miss.
“I’m certainly glad we went,” Lemke said. “It was a wonderful trip.”
This “old guy” thinks much more of the organization now.
“If anybody asked me I’d say, ‘Don’t wait a minute. Get on that trip, period,’ that it’s worth it. I didn’t expect to see anything like that at all in my life.”
Honor Flight has 127 hubs in 41 states around the U.S. Lemke departed from Appleton’s Old Glory Honor Flight, which escorts veterans and volunteer “guardians” to Washington, D.C. for a one-day trip to see the World War II memorial and several other monuments in the city.
Because time is of the essence, Honor Flight’s current focus is on World War II veterans and veterans of any war who have a terminal illness. The organization is slowly opening flights to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as well as more recent conflicts.
The whole trip is still free for veterans, no strings attached.
“Everything was taken care of. We didn’t reach in our pocket for anything,” Lemke said. “It was wonderful, wonderful.”
The day is long, including the round-trip flight, and it’s a lot to take in for vets now in their 80s and 90s.
“I can’t remember the names of all of these places, but we seen just about everything there was to see in Washington, D.C., believe me,” Lemke said.
The group escorts veterans through town to see the World War II, Lincoln, Korean, Vietnam, Iwo Jima, Air Force and Navy Memorials, and Arlington Cemetery via charter bus. The tour includes a box lunch on the bus and dinner on the plane — but there’s not a lot of time to sit down.
Becoming a Volunteer Guardian
Guardians are paired with one or two veterans each to help with whatever they need throughout the day. Some veterans are in wheelchairs all day, for example, so a guardian helps them maneuver. They also make sure the veterans have water and food when they need it, take bathroom breaks — and stay out of trouble.
Lemke and another vet were paired with Mary Kracht, a volunteer also from Wisconsin. When remembering the trip, he reminisced more about his experience with her than the memorials, playfully describing his experience at the Lincoln Memorial:
“There’s the big steps going up there and I was going to be smart and go up those steps and Mary got me by the collar. She says, ‘You’re not going up those steps!’ She says, ‘You’re too old to climb those stairs,’ so she took us around.”
Two years after their trip, the two are still in touch. “In fact, after the trip she came over to bring me this book with all these pictures in and she brought a big apple pie for me.”
Kracht told me, “He commented about apple pies or something, hasn’t had a good one since his wife died. I made an apple pie and took it with me when I gave him the photo album.”
About the album, she admitted, “That’s a suggestion of the organization that you do that. I wouldn’t have thought of doing that. I have no imagination.”
Still, Lemke had nothing but glowing praise for how Kracht cared for him on the trip. “She was wonderful. She made our trip, really. … She was on the ball for everything, that’s what got me. We didn’t want for anything. She was wonderful.”
Kracht didn’t sign up for the trip expecting anything like the experience she got.
“I signed up because I wanted to experience D.C. myself and see the memorials. I thought what better way to do it than to get somebody to take me on a tour?”
Guardians volunteer their time and pay a fee to cover their flight and food. On Old Glory from Wisconsin, the fee was $500, but prices vary depending on the departure city and airline fares.
To volunteer, you’ll fill out an application for your local Honor Flight hub.
Kracht waited a year and a half after applying before she was selected. When she got the call, she was so happy she cried. But at that point, she still considered the trip to be for herself.
That changed when she went to the orientation with the other guardians.
“The stories that they’re telling you, and the way that they are expressing respect for these (vets), that’s when it switched for me. … Everyone had to stand up and say why they were there, and as the stories were going on, I realized, ‘You know what? I don’t really have a good reason for why I’m here.’”
A lot of guardians, she said, signed up to accompany their fathers or grandfathers. Or, they were participating to honor loved ones who had died in the war.
Kracht’s father served in the Air Force and her father-in-law in the Army during WWII, but neither faced active duty.
“I just didn’t have a good reason, and I felt very bad and very selfish, and I think that’s when it switched for me that I’m not doing this for me anymore. I’m doing this for them.”
She did get to enjoy seeing the sites in the city, but her memories of the trip are all about the veterans’ experiences.
At the WWII Memorial, she recalled:
“They took a picture of all of (the vets) together, and you couldn’t imagine a prouder group of men. That was a big a-ha for me — that these guys are really proud of what they did for themselves, and for us, and for their families, and everyone.
“They’re very proud of that, and you know what? They should be. They should be. That was a really big moment for me that day.”
The day was hectic for the guardian, with two people in her charge.
“I was trying to keep up with them. I was trying to keep them engaged. I was trying to be attentive. That day, it was, like, 110 degrees, so it was like, ‘Have you had some water? Do we need to take a break? Do you want to give your feet a break?’”
And there was that 95-year-old man trying to sneak away and climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial…
Kracht was surprised to see how happy the men were on what you might expect to be a somber trip. The orientation warned her to be prepared for the veterans to get emotional when they saw the memorials, and she was worried. “I expected a couple of blubbery old men.”
Instead, “These two were just happy-go-lucky all day long, and they were very upbeat. They just made the day fun. There wasn’t anything solemn about either one of them, with their memories, actions, nothing.”
Instead of breaking down under the weight of wartime memories, she said, they commented on how impressed they were with the way the memorials were built.
My conversation with Lemke had the same tone. He had few words for his emotional reaction to the memorial:
“It was kind of … What should I say? It was kind of … Gave me thoughts of what happened before. It reminded us all of, of course, what we had gone through and all this and that.”
But he quickly focused on the details of its design:
“This monument, it was a wonderful place. That monument is beautiful. It’s got the names, the South Pacific and the German end of it too, over there. The World War II was on each side of the ocean, you know, and this monument is built for both. It’s quite a big thing.”
Jane Seiler, a friend of Kracht’s who signed up to volunteer through Old Glory after hearing about her touching experience, said she noticed the same thing from the veterans on her flight.
“You can see a faraway look, but a look that they are remembering,” she said. “… but they don’t really talk too much about that. You can see it.”
Taking Part in Something Special
Seiler, who grew up in the era of the Vietnam War, was touched by the patriotism she sensed in the nation’s capital. Tourists at the monuments asked to take pictures with the Honor Flight vets, and strangers came up to them to say, “Thank you for your service.”
“I think (the veterans) feel very honored that now, (years later) that people out there are still supporting them, and encouraging them, and remembering them,” she said.
Seiler didn’t stay in touch with either of her veterans beyond sending Christmas cards that got no response. Still, her volunteer experience was rewarding. “I walked away from that day feeling very good that I done this. It was a good experience.”
Seiler’s flight included a few WWII vets who had also played for the Green Bay Packers when the team won the first-ever Super Bowl. “That was the highlight, I think for (the vets), because that was their era. They idolized these (players).”
Those details stood out for both guardians. The organization makes the trip free and without hassle for the veterans it honors, and it goes beyond its promise to create an unforgettable experience for everyone.
In addition to the flight, food, bus and guided tour, the organization works with friends and family to add personal touches to each trip.
When his group returned to the plane after a long day, it was time for “mail call,” Lemke said. Veterans receive packs of cards and letters family and friends wrote to honor them.
Again, Lemke didn’t divulge much detail, but he told me, “Of course we (were) reading our letters and crying a little bit and this and that. You know, all the good stuff.”
Seiler said during mail call, “One guy leaned across the aisle from me and said, ‘You know, daughters, what are you going to do with them?’ (His daughter) must have written a very sentimental note.”
When a group returns from D.C., they receive a proper welcome, too. Lemke told me, “Oh my god, there was such a big crowd there, greeting us as we were coming back, hooting and hollering.”
Friends, family and neighbors gathered to greet the veterans with cheers, hugs, waves and music.
“The whole experience, the organization itself was just fantastic,” said Seiler. “It’s so organized. It’s geared towards the veterans, and it’s also geared toward the guardians. They make everyone feel very special, that you are taking part in this, it’s a great experience and they hope to make it even greater for you.”
Like her friend did for her, Seiler is passing the torch to new volunteers, as well. She’s talked about her experience so much her daughter and son-in-law have applied to be guardians, too.
Both women say they’d love to return, both for the experience of seeing D.C. and for that of supporting the Honor Flight Network.
“It’s one of those genuinely good organizations,” Kracht said. “I’m just so happy that I got to do that. …. I mean, it’s two years later and I can really … I can remember a lot of details, and I have a friend, Norm, out of this.”
If you’re a veteran or know a veteran who would like to take a free Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., fill out the application for your local hub here.
Your Turn: Have you seen the World War II Memorial? What did it mean to you?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).