LeadingAge Magazine · July/August 2014 • Volume 04 • Number 04

Honor Flight: Glory Revisited and Gratitude Renewed

June 22, 2014 | by John Stone and Keith Knapp

A group of this community’s residents made a moving and unforgettable trip to Washington, DC, as part of the “Honor Flight” program, which helps veterans of World War II and other wars visit their memorials in the nation’s capital.

Very early on a brisk October day, we assembled at Standiford Field Airport in Louisville, KY, at the USO … more than 80 World War II veterans from all around Kentucky, bringing back memories of having done so in similar fashion some seven decades ago. Men and women in the autumn of our lives, we were about to embark on an incredible journey to Washington, DC, called an “Honor Flight.” We were invited to pay tribute in person to those with whom we had trained, marched, slept, dined, prayed and fought beside in battle; to reflect on how the experience shaped our lives, our nation and the world.

When we went off to war, we responded to the call of the day to don our nation’s uniform, take up arms and head overseas with the goal of protecting the cause of freedom. Of course, we had very little idea what we were about to experience. Most had no expectations about either becoming heroes or witnessing the horrors and devastation of war.

We were asked to set our brains on “fast-forward”; to skip past our return from the war, beyond getting married, raising families, completing careers and then retiring. How did we react to receiving an invitation to participate in an Honor Flight? At first, I was stunned. I asked, “What’s an Honor Flight?” When I heard it described, I dove deep into my closet to haul out my U.S. Army dress uniform, which I hadn’t worn since boxing it up in 1946. I was “all in!”

I was introduced to the Honor Flight program when flying to Washington, DC, for a professional meeting. When the flight was airborne, the pilot announced that there were 24 World War II veterans aboard on their way to visit the national service memorials, along with their 24 volunteer escorts, called “Guardians.” Not surprisingly, the other passengers erupted into grateful applause.

When the plane taxied to the terminal, the pilot asked the regular commercial passengers to deplane first in order to allow the Honor Flight passengers the extra time they might require to exit. Much to everyone’s surprise, the gate area was already packed. We learned there had been an announcement in the terminal about the valiant men and women who were arriving on our plane; other travelers in the terminal awaiting flights of their own had been invited to assist in welcoming the Honor Flight veterans to town and thanking them for their service to our country! The crowd assembled at our arrival gate was awesome and enthusiastic. I was moved to tears by the experience, and thought immediately that Christian Care Communities simply must find a way to get involved with this program.

When I returned, we discussed it at our very next administrators’ meeting, and everyone agreed we needed to get on board. Once we learned more about how the program worked, we launched our effort to identify which residents would likely qualify, and then to recruit and nominate them, as well as to solicit from our staff and family members anyone who might want to apply to become a Guardian.

The Honor Flight Network is a national not-for-profit organization formed in 2005 with the express purpose of honoring America’s veterans for their sacrifices. It was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician’s assistant and retired Air Force Captain. Earl wanted to honor the veterans he had taken care of for the past 27 years. In May 2004, the World War II Memorial was finally completed and dedicated in Washington, DC, and visiting it quickly became the topic of discussion among his World War II veteran patients—most expressing skepticism about whether they would get to do so.

Not long after its very modest beginning, relying purely on volunteer pilots and donations of time and money from civic and veterans’ groups from around southwest Ohio, the program grew exponentially. The Honor Flight Network now includes chapters (called “Regional Hubs”) in nearly every state. It has attracted broad community support from civic and fraternal organizations, veterans’ groups, private and corporate foundations and even Southwest Airlines as its official carrier.

Top priority is given to the senior veterans—World War II survivors—along with those veterans from any war that may be terminally ill; subsequent priority is given to Korean and then Vietnam War Veterans. The organization flies them to Washington, DC, for an entire day to visit and reflect at their respective service branch memorials and the World War II Memorial.

The sense of urgency with which the Honor Flight Network operates is driven by the alarming rate at which America is losing its World War II vets. According to the Honor Flight Network, 640 World War II veterans die every day, and there are only an estimated one million left (6%) of the 15.7 million who survived the war. That’s barely enough to last another four years at the same rate!

The Hub for Kentucky is called “Honor Flight of the Bluegrass,” and it is based in Louisville. When we contacted officials about Christian Care’s potential interest, one might think we had just reported a wildcat oil strike! They were very excited about the prospect of such a high concentration of flight-eligible World War II Veterans, since they generally have to recruit one at a time through families, churches and other organizations.

Israel Ray, executive director of our Hopkinsville community, took the lead on assembling the information we needed from Honor Flight of the Bluegrass to know how to best proceed. We figured there were at least 17 residents who likely met the program’s criteria for military service and current endurance for a full day of travel. Five of them were willing to brave it; others may have wanted to make sure the first five came back in one piece. We submitted applications for them, and we were thrilled when all were selected for the fall flight on their first try. We wanted to match that number of Guardians, as well, but were only successful landing four of the highly coveted spots for staff volunteers.
 

Residents:

  • John Stone (Army, Capt. & Platoon Commander, WWII, Europe)
  • Dr. Lewis Graham (Air Force, 1t Lt. & Plane Commander, WWII, Pacific), deceased
  • D.D. Cayce, III (Navy, Yeoman 1st Class, WWII, Pacific)
  • Howard Dixon (Air Force, Master Sgt., Korea)
  • Daniel Cowherd (Army, Pvt. 1st Class, Korea), deceased

Staff/Guardians:

  • Ronnie Moore (US Army, Sgt 1st Class, Viet Nam), maintenance director
  • Charles Payne (Army National Guard, E-4 Specialist, Iraq) housing director
  • Keith Knapp, president/CEO
  • Israel Ray, executive director, Hopkinsville Community

Each veteran’s travel expense is covered by the program through donations and sponsorships. Although Guardians typically pay their own way, our flight turned out to have an extra sponsor, the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, and Southwest Airlines was contributing the aircraft, fuel and crew so that it became a purely “Honor Flight” chartered plane! There were to be 84 veterans, 80 Guardians and several local media members.

Once selected as Guardians, we attended a very well-organized and thorough half-day training session with other first-time volunteers. We learned about the history of the Honor Flight, the roles and responsibilities of a Guardian, the itinerary for the travel date, and some special (classified as “top secret,” of course) events planned throughout the day to surprise and show appreciation for the veterans. We knew we were in for a real treat, but wondered how in the world we were going to keep the top secret information under our hats.

Here’s what we can share with fellow LeadingAge members without spoiling the “classified” surprises for any future Honor Flight participants from your communities. We were greeted by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell as we prepared to board the plane. When we arrived, we rode on buses with a police escort everywhere we went; we didn’t stop at a traffic signal all day. Starting with an emotional visit at the World War II Memorial, where we were greeted by the rest of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation, we proceeded to the Korean War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the Air Force Memorial, and the Marine Corps Memorial with its famous statue of men raising an American flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima. We received an amazing heroes’ welcome when we returned to Kentucky.

Two residents of Foulkeways at Gwynedd Continuing Care Retirement Community in Gwynedd, PA, traveled to France, to the D-Day landings beaches and the sites of the Battle of Normandy to attend the 70th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2014. Beginning in June and continuing through August, 2014, a large number of commemorations and festivities are taking place, with hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world, including many heads of state, attending.

William Notley and Herbert Levy were both accompanied by family members on their trip to France, where they attended the inauguration ceremonies for the “Tree of Freedom” memorials at both Utah Beach and Montormel Beach. On June 3, 70 veterans of the Normandy invasion attended a reception and luncheon, where there was a signing ceremony to support an application to UNESCO for the recognition of the D-Day beaches as world heritage sites. Veterans, high school students, teachers, media and others who took part in the 70 Voices of Freedom project earlier this year in Washington, DC, also took part.

(The school system in Basse Normandie initiated the “70 Voices of Freedom” project to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the liberation. The project involved 1,000 French high school students who interviewed as many surviving veterans of the 1944 Normandy Campaign as they could contact. In January, 20 students traveled to the U.S. from the village of Carentan to interview veterans of the Normandy invasion.)

Both Notley and Levy were awarded the Legion d’honneur(or Ordre national de la Legion d’honneur), and named Chevaliers in 2009 by the French Consul, Michel Schaffhauser, on behalf of the French Government, for their services in World War II during the Normandy campaign. Nine other Foulkeways residents who served with the U.S. Military during the 1944 liberation of France were also named Chevaliers of the French Legion of Honor at a ceremony held in 2009. Considered France’s most prestigious award, the French Legion of Honor medal is awarded as a sign of France’s deep gratitude for the enormous sacrifices of American servicemen and women and their personal contributions to the liberation of France.

Written by Nancy Nolan, director of marketing and public relations for Foulkeways at Gwynedd.

For those of us who made it, we had an obligation to make the world a better place. While it’s impossible to teach determination from a leadership book, it sure comes in handy when you are leading a platoon. We were all in the war effort together—the entire country knew Hitler simply had to be stopped. To this day, I’ll never forget the shock of what I saw at the prison camp at Dachau. Even now, when I think about the suffering, and the tragedy of war, it really is beyond the imagination.

Joy, sadness, melancholy … I experienced the gamut of emotions when touring the World War II memorial. Of course, I thought of my men, and especially of those who didn’t come home on the troopship with the rest of us. But I also thought how very thankful I was to have had the opportunity to live a full and meaningful life. It’s difficult to put into words, but under that pillar at the memorial, I felt myself standing at the threshold and a wave of emotion took over. I was reminded of the sensation we all experienced as our returning troopship approached New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty came into view. With the sun shining brightly behind her, we were reassured that our sacrifices were indeed worthwhile. She represented all that was near and dear to us!

It is difficult to describe how powerful the whole Honor Flight experience was for my fellow veterans and for me. I am just so grateful that I had the opportunity to make the trip, thankful for those who conceived of the Honor Flight idea, and for the gift of life!

Time is running out: How can your residents benefit from this program? Visit the Honor Flight Network website.

It’s fast becoming a treasured tradition: Late last month, residents from Friendship Village of Schaumburg, Schaumburg, IL, visited veterans at Edward Hines VA Hospital in Hines, IL. This is the second consecutive year in which they have visited and they plan on making it an annual event.

The visitors, who included 26 residents and two associates of Friendship Village, brought handmade neck pillows for 150 patients. Joe Gondek of Friendship Village brought his accordion to entertain the men in the cafeteria, while a group of visitors went to the rooms of the veterans unable to go to the cafeteria.

In the past, residents of Friendship Village delivered hand-made greeting cards, flowers and blankets to the veterans in celebration of Valentine’s Day.

On both occasions, the visitors from Friendship Village have included World War II veterans, some of whom had traveled to Washington, DC, on an Honor Flight.

Friendship Village residents always enjoy the opportunity to give back, and they do a lot of volunteering throughout the area on a regular basis. Visiting Hines is special because many of our residents are veterans themselves, so this is honoring their peers. People of the residents’ generation have a strong admiration for those who have served in the armed services, so even the residents who are not veterans really appreciate the service and sacrifices of these men.

Written by Jeannette Magdaleno, lifelong learning and volunteer coordinator for Friendship Village.