There are few things in life that make such a long-lasting impression they will stay with you forever. Recently, I was fortunate to have had such an experience when I accompanied 32 veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit their war memorials. It was a whirlwind emotional tour organized by Honor Flight Nevada, a non-profit organization that helps veterans visit their war memorials at no cost to them. Our group was comprised of World War II, Korean, and Vietnam Veterans ranging in age from 75 to 96, including four women who served.
What an honor it was to be part of this experience! It is somewhat ironic that they call it the “Honor Flight,” in reference to it being a way to honor the veterans for their service — yet I felt that I was the one who was honored to be there. Even a week later, it is still difficult to write this article without getting a tear in my eye.
As you continue reading, keep in mind that you, too, can make this trip as either a “guardian” (a personal guide assigned to an Honor Flight veteran) or as a veteran. My business partner, Steve, my eldest son, Hayden, and I went on the Honor Flight as guardians.
Honor Flight Nevada is run by Jon Yuspa. If you knew the amount of work that goes into a trip like this (and there are multiple flights every year), you’d be surprised to find out that this isn’t Jon’s full-time job. He works for Southwest Airlines full-time, and in his “spare time,” he and six other board members organize, promote, and coordinate two to four flights a year. It is no small undertaking.
Our travel itinerary looked and felt more like basic training, except it only lasted three days. We started every morning at “o’dark something.” Friday and Sunday were mostly travel days, with Saturday being the big day. Packed from early morning into the night, it was an exceptionally emotional day for everyone.
The bus transported 32 veterans and 20 guardians all around Washington D.C. It is no exaggeration to say that we were treated like royalty the entire time. It started when we arrived at the airport in Baltimore, and it didn’t end until we returned to Reno 72 hours later.
When we got out of the plane in Baltimore, a crowd had gathered at the end of the walkway to greet us. As each veteran neared the crowd, there was an eruption of applause, plenty of handshaking, and many instances of “Thank you for your service” being said over and over.
After that incredible welcome, it continued from there: As we walked through the airport, travelers stopped and clapped. This was the start of the first tears being shed. You just couldn’t help it, it was so moving.
We need to remember that not all veterans who served in wars were welcomed home with ticker-tape parades and
bottles of champagne. Certainly, our WWII veterans experienced more of a homecoming than other war veterans did, but even for the WWII vets, it wasn’t easy. The experience was still too fresh to talk about, and the truth was, people didn’t really want to know all the details. They were just happy to have their loved ones home so that they could get on with their lives.
Veterans of the Korean War (which is sometimes referred to as the “forgotten war”), received very little homecoming. In fact, at the time, it was never even called a “war,” but was considered a “police action.” As for the veterans who served their time, what it was called never really mattered. Their wounds remained regardless.
And then there was Vietnam. Not only did Vietnam vets receive very few homecomings, but interactions often turned violent and ugly. In talking with a Vietnam veteran last week, he described how he was physically assaulted by a woman as he made his way back home after the war. What a tragedy. As we all know, the men and women who serve our country are doing it out of obligation and duty. They are not the ones calling the shots.
The Honor Flight helps to mend some of those wounds and finally offer the recognition that is due. You can sense the comradery among the veterans, and now that time has had a chance to heal some of the wounds, it is easier to talk about and learn from the experiences today than it would have been all those years ago.
For many veterans who are reaching an advanced age, this trip may be their last. And while wartime stories are a significant part of this 3-day journey, it doesn’t encompass the total experience. Just hanging out with these men and women was the best part for me. One Navy vet told me about how she lost her husband at age 19 due to the war after only being married for 6 months. She ended up remarrying and was with her 2nd husband for 63 years! There are so many life lessons to be learned from a person who has reached the age of 80, 90, and beyond. I try to soak it all up and apply the bits of wisdom to my own life to make sure I am getting everything I can out of today.
We visited all the war memorials and a few other memorials and monuments: the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam War Memorials; the Navy and Air Force Memorials; Arlington Cemetery (including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier); the Women’s Memorial; and the Lincoln Memorial.
Each memorial was beautiful and special in its own way, but the most powerful part of all the memorials had to be the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Four of the Honor Flight Nevada veterans were invited to assist in the changing of the wreath and Taps was played as part of the ceremony. When that bugler began to play the familiar melancholy call, there was not a dry eye in the place. I can’t speak for everyone, but my tears were not tears of sadness. They were tears of gratitude for all those who have served and are serving our country so that we can be free and independent.
Okay — full disclosure: I get a tear in my eye every time the Star-Spangled Banner is played. Throw in a “fly-over,” and it is all over for me. I am glad I usually have sunglasses on. Below is a moving video of one of the Honor Flight trips from a couple years ago.
If you can watch it without getting a tear in your eye, I suggest you immediately go see a doctor.
There’s one last bit of fun I want to tell you about. Saturday is a very busy day from pre-dawn light to after dark. There are well over 50 of us on this bus. At every stop, we’d unload all the wheelchairs, fit each wheelchair with a rider, then load them back on the bus before taking off again. Suffice it to say, there is a lot to do with minimal time to accomplish it all.
On top of that, you have to factor in all the traffic you encounter driving from memorial to memorial. Or, at least you would have to factor that in, if there were any traffic to battle. You see, we had a full-on police escort. There was a motorcycle policeman with sirens and lights escorting our bus the entire day. He would instruct the cars ahead of us to pull to the side, stopping traffic in all the intersections so we could pass through. There was a second police car following the bus doing the same thing. I have never experienced anything like it! It was another beautiful touch that said, “Thank you” to our veterans one more time.
I urge you to consider donating to Honor Flight Nevada. All the veteran’s trips are paid solely through donations. And, if you want to experience it yourself, get in touch with Honor Flight Nevada and sign up to be a guardian. Guardians pay their own way; it ends up costing around $1,000 – a relatively small amount, considering everything that you and the veterans get out of it. One easy way to donate is through Honor Flight’s Paypal button at the bottom of this page.
If you know of a veteran who you think would be a candidate, have them fill out the application to go on an Honor Flight. They will forever thank you. If you live in another state (or know of a veteran who does), Honor Flight is a national organization with regional hubs across the US. Check this map at the Honor Flight Network site to locate the hub in your state: https://www.honorflight.org/regional-honor-flight-hubs/
I’ll close with one last thought that was shared by a veteran at the September 27th event we organized in support of Honor Flight. It pretty much sums it up: “All Gave Some, Some Gave All.”
Let us never forget.