Honor: (n.) high respect, as that shown for special merit; esteem.
Honor: (v.) to confer distinction on
May 21st met me at 3 am on a bus to Kansas City with several of my students, my two bosses, a few other volunteers, and about 12 veterans from our area of the state. Our mission was to get these veterans to Washington, D.C. so they could visit the memorials which portray a slice of the honor that is their due.
I could not be more proud to be an American after this trip. These men sacrificed many things in the war, whether it was leaving their new wife at home, traveling down a mountain with a broken pelvis on the back of a donkey, or seeing the majority of their squad or platoon die in combat. I am so thankful that they found it their duty to serve their country, for their sense of duty has contributed to each of the freedoms I currently enjoy. I look at my own generation and sometimes wonder if that sense of duty is still intact. What will our country be like in the future if it is not?
As we departed the plane in Baltimore, a tunnel of people, including a group of sailors in their dress whites, cheered for each veteran as he entered the terminal. More tears for this girl! Not only did I cry, but also I wanted to get out of the way and let these veterans have their spotlight. People were telling me thank you, too, but I didn’t feel that I was doing anything I wasn’t already obligated to do.
The day in DC started at the WWII Memorial, and our group took a photo in front of the Kansas column of the memorial and had a small ceremony where the veterans saluted a flag we bring along on every trip. We then visited the Korean War Memorial (half of our veterans fought in Korea), Lincoln Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial. Throughout the trip, strangers came up to shake the gnarled 80 or 90 somethings’ hands, but these men didn’t think they needed a handshake. They wondered what they had done that was so great; still, the heartfelt, earnest “Thank You, Sir” said it all. After the memorials on the National Mall, we made a brief stop at the Air Force Memorial, and I was able to help Elton (an Air Force Veteran) track down a sheet of paper acknowledging him as a charter member of that memorial’s construction. Then, we drove by the Iwo Jima memorial. The day ended at a nice county buffet restaurant, and once we got to the hotel, the veterans put themselves to bed before the students (their guardians on this trip) could even wish them a good night! Well, that is, MOST of the veterans. There were a few we found we had to keep an eye out for. Old age doesn’t always mean tiredness!
The next day, we went to Arlington National Cemetary to watch the Changing of the Guard. The veterans were ushered down into a special section to watch the ceremony. I thought it fitting that, from this location, the entire crowd could see the group of veterans in their matching t-shirts and red and blue hats. After the ceremony, as we stood waiting for the bus, one man walked through our group, barely holding back the sobs, to thank each veteran for his service. This intense, heartfelt display of gratitude from a complete stranger, of course, made me cry again.
Why is Honor Flight worth it? I don’t know that I can even name all the reasons, but here are some of the big ones:
1. This is a cathartic experience for some veterans. Perhaps they have never spoken about their experiences in war before. One of my friends said that on a previous trip, a man told him about seeing villagers in Korea die at the hands of his own unit and himself. He mentioned that he has lived with that all his life. It is likely he hasn’t spoken of it to anyone else, but in that place, in that time, with a sponsor he would likely not have contact with again, he was able to release some of that pain and sadness.
2. The experience shows the veterans just how much they are appreciated. I’ve spoken of the thank yous from strangers and applause at the airport. Our group also does a thing called “Mail Call.” At the supper on the first night, we delivered an envelope of letters to each veteran from school children. Elton received one from a high school girl he knows well, and he was thrilled to hear her gratitude. The group of veterans we took along from Wamego received letters from their families, which I also think is a cathartic thing. Isn’t it easier sometimes to express your appreciation and love in a letter? Especially to your gruff grandfather who has never spoken of the war? Or to your father, who you love dearly but have never been brave enough to talk more about the war because it makes him sad?
3. The experience can be intergenerational. I did a project on intergenerational service-learning in one of my Master’s classes, and I cannot think of a better way to put those principles I learned to use than with Honor Flight. I have always loved elderly people since I worked at an assisted living facility in high school. I love students and helping them discover new places. I love Washington, D.C. This is just right up my alley! Count on hearing more about it in the future. Our group (and several groups from Kansas) uses high school students as the veterans’ guardians. This is the best possible set-up. Kids learn honor, respect, history, compassion, and dedication, while the veterans are loved on, encouraged, assisted, and treated like kings for a day. I’ve not met many elderly people who don’t enjoy the life and spirit of high school students; I also haven’t met many elderly people as lively and energetic as some of these veterans. I actually had to help one of our students keep track of his 92 year old veteran, and we became fast friends!
4. It is urgent. Many WWII veterans will never see their National Memorial because they are dying every day. I wanted to take my former landlord from Coldwater on this trip, and I had called him a few times, left messages, but never heard back. I asked a friend about him to see if he had perhaps passed away and found that the week after I had made my last call, his obituary was in the paper. This man served in WWII, received the Purple Heart, and I heard several of his stories when I brought him in to talk to my Juniors about the war. He was very special, and I am sad I couldn’t honor him with this flight.
My grandfather is another example of the urgency of this project. He now has Parkinson’s disease to the degree that this trip would be impossible. If the veteran cannot get off and on a bus about eight times over the course of two days, he would not be able to attend. I wish I could turn back the time and take my grandpa from four years ago on this trip. He would have enjoyed it greatly.
I urge you to check out the Honor Flight program at http://honorflight.org/ if you are interested in helping someone attend, putting together a flight, or want to help out in any way. Honor Flights around the country are in need of funding, guardians, trip coordinators, and doctors and nurses.