Last week I had the opportunity to accompany my father as a guardian on his Honor Flight to Washington D.C. This was one of many flights that have taken place since 2005 when the very first one started a tremendous program that is designed to allow our veterans to visit the many war memorials that are located in our capitol. There is another important aspect of these flights though as well – and that is to give honor to those who have served on our behalf.
The agenda itself was very well planned, and our specific flight was out of the Springfield, IL airport and managed through the Land of Lincoln Honor Flight organization. We were all asked to be at the airport by 4:45 in the morning, and this consisted of 162 people! After check-in and pre-flight instructions, we began boarding – which in itself took some time to help many, including my father, who were in wheelchairs. The flight left on time just after 6:00 am, and we arrived in DC right on schedule – which is pretty important considering the many stops they had planned for us. Upon arrival we un-boarded and led to 3 different buses that would be transporting us throughout the day. On each bus there was a mix of veterans from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War along with each of their guardians and a tour guide – who did a terrific job of not only keeping us organized, but also in explaining some of the history behind each our planned visits.
Our day in Washington started at the World War II Memorial, and it was at this first stop that a group picture was taken of all the veterans. The three from WWII had a blue shirt, the Korean War veterans (this is the war my father served in) were yellow, and then the Vietnam veterans wore Red. Following the picture we were also greeted by the US House Representative for Springfield – Darin LaHood. We then were able to walk around the memorial to see some of the individual monuments for different battles. It was at this memorial that we first encountered random tourists that come up to the veterans and shake their hands, and thank them for their service! Over the course of the day, this was one of the most gratifying experiences I believe.
Following our first stop, we were then taken to a stop at the Korean War, Vietnam War and Lincoln Memorials, where we were given some background information and then allowed to walk through each and read the tributes, pay respect to those who had given the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. To say the least, this was emotional for many and especially on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, where many veterans were able to find the names of fellow soldiers who did not come back. We all owe much to those individuals and our prayers are with you and your families.
The next stop was at the Air & Space Museum, which was quite interesting to see the actual history of flight, from the very crude beginnings, right up to modern space exploration. My father recognized many of the aircraft from the Korean War and some of the later ones as well. After leaving Virginia, we then returned to the Capitol and visited some of the other memorials that are located right around the Arlington National Cemetery. These included the US Marine Corps Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the US Air Force Memorial. While our visits to these were fairly short, it was interesting to hear the history and to see the captivating presentations that each of these share – it truly is a respectful dedication to those who served!
Our last visit was to Arlington National Cemetery, and to the Tomb of the Unknowns where we were able to witness the Changing of the Guard. I believe that for both myself and my dad, the sheer size of the cemetery grounds and the number of tombstones already housed there was pretty amazing. We have seen pictures in the past, but to drive around the 620+ acres and see this tribute was so much more.
Our flight home was right on schedule, and shortly after we took off, a traditional “mail call” was held and each veteran received mail from their relatives who were given advance notice of this tradition and asked to write letters. This was intended to be a surprise for the veterans and I suspect that many an emotional message was shared. This was indeed our opportunity to give our gratitude to those in our life that had given so much for our country. This was then enhanced tremendously upon landing back in Springfield, and being greeted by well over 300 individuals that lined the airport and waved flags, shook hands, clapped and cheered on all of the returning veterans! This was perhaps the most gratifying for my father I think, to see the genuine support of all those who had served.
I was indeed very honored to have taken part in this experience and I very much want to thank the founders of this tradition – Earl Morse and Jeff Miller, along with the organizers from the Land of Lincoln Honor Flight program – Joan Bortolon, John Dust and Adam Liesman. All of you had done a fantastic job for the veterans and all of the guardians that participated, and this was truly a great honor!