The veterans of World War II are in their 90s now. There is a monument in Washington, D.C., recognizing their efforts to basically save the world from tyranny, and a great many of these veterans have never seen it.
Of course, the National World War II Memorial didn’t open until 2004; by then, the women and men who fought for the freedom of so many around the world were in their late seventies or older. Many still alive were in poor health, or losing their vision, or without the resources to travel. These days, 15 years later, not so many remain.
Honor Flight Maine makes several trips each spring and each fall to bring veterans (with priority to World War II vets) to see their war memorials and some of the other history in and around Washington, D.C. Veterans, volunteers, and Honor Flight Maine staff gather in Portland and fly as a group to Baltimore, spending two nights in a very nice hotel, with space for socializing and plenty of good food.
Aboard chartered buses the group visits the World War II Memorial, The Korean War and Vietnam War Memorials, the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the Marines Corps (Iwo Jima,) Navy, and Air Force Memorials, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, Fort McHenry where the Star Spangled Banner was written, and other sites.
There is reverent silence at the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown, and for the most part a subdued quiet at the Vietnam Memorial wall, but there is also laughter and storytelling as the group makes its way around the city behind motorcycles and police cars. Once in a while, someone produces a tear and a smile at the same time.
Even when money is no object in one’s retirement years--which is uncommon, let’s be frank—and even when a nonagenarian has the strength and agility to make a two or three-night trip without help, which is not always a reliable assumption, and even if the logistics of a large and crowded metropolis do not seem like a pain in the neck for a guy from northern Maine who hasn’t been anywhere bigger than Bangor in decades, venturing into the District of Columbia traffic doesn’t sound easy. Honor Flight makes it easy.
The official reason for the trip is to see the monuments, but the best parts of each trip are often those things which cannot be scheduled.
These veterans are deeply and heartily welcomed wherever the group travels, greeted with love and respect and admiration, and shown a sense of patriotism and understanding that may have been denied them in their youth. It’s the handshakes and the smiles from strangers, it’s the new friends they make on the trip, and it’s the cheers in the airports that the guys certainly did not expect. Especially in the case of the Vietnam veterans on these trips it is quite seriously a national do-over.
Our country is filled with people who know that as a society we screwed up, back in the day, when we blamed returning service personnel for policies made by politicians, and blamed teenagers for decisions made by generals. Service members returning from Vietnam who were insulted to their faces in the late 1960’s, spat on, “egged,” and shunned, are greeted warmly in airports now by Americans who intend that we never make that mistake again. “Thank you for your service,” indeed.
It is sometimes the case that an elderly veteran from back in the woods may be skeptical at first, not sure that they’ll enjoy the trip, because it seems like a lot of work—and a lot of city--with the potential for too many emotional touch points or not enough bathrooms or just a lot of hassle and crowds. It is also common for the same guys to have an absolute blast. Honor Flight trips are fun. They are moving, and touching, and occasionally healing, but genuinely fun.
In these days of a continuing “war on terror,” and a military dealing with enemies without nation or government, it is difficult for some of us civilians to get our heads around the rhetoric of “freedom isn’t free.” In the 1940’s nobody had any trouble getting their mind around what was going on. What was going on was Hitler, and the systematic takeover of one after another European country, with massacres and genocide, not to mention the war in the Pacific that began for us with the attack on Pearl Harbor. The youngsters of that day, who grew up fast and ran to enlist, had in mind to save the world.
There are cheers and applause, fire departments and young enlisted military personnel, motorcycle honor guard riders in black leather and random business travelers who put down their Starbucks and their smart phones in the airports to come over to say thank you, or just flash a smile, or stand still for a moment as the group passes through. The rest of America enjoys this, too. It feels good to meet a 95-year-old veteran: just ask all the school kids who bring questions and want their picture taken. Just ask the tourists from other countries who stop to say “thank you” for some good the American military has done in the past in other countries. Just ask the young active-duty personnel who absolutely beam when they meet veterans from their great-grandparent’s day.
I had the privilege of going along on a recent Honor Flight trip as a volunteer lugging a first aid kit. We were forty-some Maine veterans of various conflicts, women and men, each with a guardian to help them plus a few extra hands, all skillfully led by Honor Flight staff who had done this many times before.
The founder of Honor Flight, Earl Morse (USAF) happened to be on our trip, as was Don Carrigan from WCSH News Center Maine. We found ourselves whizzing around Washington, D.C. in a pair of tour buses, running through red lights behind our police escort’s siren, as commuters in the city couldn’t help but notice us. Hey, it’s a parade! Much of what is so special comes from little moments, unplanned and accidental. Seabees find each other, submariners find each other, and merchant mariners who served in harm’s way are duly recognized. People once strangers to each other discover friends in common in Maine, or that they were both on some horrible little Pacific island at the same time. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (where Honor Flight Maine laid a wreath) the guard, normally so rigid and formal, didn’t hesitate to yell at some unruly tourists who failed to show the expected decorum: “Do not jump the chains!” The Vietnam Nurses’ Memorial statue will make your knees shake.
The Korean War Memorial will remind you that for all the images of generals perched straight-backed on horses in town squares around the world, the real work of the military is just that: work, and it isn’t pretty. At supper at the Fort Meade Officer’s Club, among soldiers and Boy Scouts and service dogs, we were treated to music. The Army sponsors a very cool little rockabilly/bluegrass string band called the Six String Soldiers; look them up; you may be surprised. Topping it all off, the huge reception upon return to the Portland Jetport was enough to make a grown man cry.
Help with a donation if you can, but I’d also like to remind readers, if they know a veteran who is getting up there in years, to encourage them to apply and to go on one of these trips, if possible. There is no cost whatsoever for the veteran; they are an honored guest. I’m telling you, it’ll be a good time!