Veterans feel nation's appreciation on honor flight
by Karl Hawkins, Redstone Rocket
World War II veteran Paul Taylor enjoyed seeing the memorial built in his honor during the Sept. 13 Tennessee Valley Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
Yet, for Taylor, the highlight of the trip was not so much the memorial's brick and mortar, but the people who made the day memorable. His fellow veterans and the guardians who cared for all of them, the people who greeted the veterans with appreciation throughout the trip, and a visit with his hero made Honor Flight extra special for Taylor.
"(Sen.) Bob Dole visited the memorial to say hello to the people on our trip," the 83-year-old veteran said. "He's my hero. He was in World War II. I'm a Republican, too, just like him. He ran for president. But, mostly, he was the primary mover to get the World War II memorial built."
Taylor, like many veterans on Honor Flight, was surprised at the reception they received upon arrival at Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C., and their return to Huntsville International, and at the memorials they visited.
"One of my first impressions was how sincere so many people were to cheer us on and recognize us," said Taylor, who lives in Decatur. "When we got to Washington, D.C., there were so many people greeting us and there was a band playing patriotic music. One of the biggest surprises was when we got back to Huntsville. I drove to the airport by myself that morning because it was so early. But when we got back, there were hundreds of people at the airport welcoming us. And there with them was my family."
This "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for Taylor, who navigated B-17s over Italy during World War II and who went on to serve 32 years in the Air Force Reserves, was a trip that he could not have made without Honor Flight.
"We used to travel a lot," Taylor said. "But my wife doesn't like to fly after 9/11 and I don't like to drive long distances.
"I want to thank (organizer) Joe Fitzgerald and all the Honor Flight staff for the recognition and privilege of attending the World War II memorial trip ... I was overwhelmed by the admiration and respect shown to me and the other veterans."
That feeling of appreciation - along with the memory of seeing their memorial - is a memento that World War II veterans have taken home from the Honor Flight trips since they began in April 2007. Since then, five flights - including an inaugural flight of 14 veterans and the Sept. 13 flight of 125 veterans -- have flown more than 500 veterans to Washington to see their memorial.
Thanks to the contributions of hundreds of local businesses and individuals, the 125 veterans on the Sept. 13 trip are now alumni of one of the first and most successful Honor Flight programs in the nation. Honor Flight is a nationwide program that takes World War II veterans on free trips to see the memorial that opened nearly 60 years after the war ended.
"We were the third group to start Honor Flight for veterans," said Fitzgerald, founder of Tennessee Valley Honor Flight.
"Each flight is different. The scenario is always the same, but other things make each trip different. The best thing about this (Sept. 13) flight was that everyone - all 125 veterans - showed up on Saturday morning for their flight. That is a large miracle because of the age of these veterans and the complexities of their health."
Veteran John Hancock, who piloted B-24 missions in northern Italy during WW II, thought he was, at the age of 87, one of the oldest on the trip. He was surprised to discover he wasn't.
"It's getting to be a real old bunch," he said. "I think one veteran celebrated his 100th birthday there. They must have called out 20 names of veterans that were over 90."
Fitzgerald will remember the Sept. 13 Honor Flight trip as the hottest one taken so far. It was also the trip that included a bus breakdown in Washington (which was quickly resolved by the bus company) and the use of the most wheelchairs on an Honor Flight trip. While four veterans were permanently assigned to wheelchairs, another 50 veterans used them on this trip.
"We always have plenty of wheelchairs on our flights because many World War II veterans just can't manage that much walking," Fitzgerald said.
The trip was unique also because of the number of veteran's burial flags that were flown with the Honor Flight group to be presented in a special tribute at the memorial. Families of 21 deceased World War II veterans presented their flags in a ceremony the night before Honor Flight. After the trip, another ceremony was held to return the flags to the families.
"It's closure for a lot of these families," Fitzgerald said.
This Honor Flight was different from the others, too, because in earlier plans organizers thought it would be one of the last flights - another is planned for Oct. 11 -- carrying World War II veterans to Washington. But, because of the large number of veterans who have signed up for Tennessee Valley Honor Flight, Fitzgerald said World War II flights will continue into 2009.
"After the October flight, we have a waiting list of over 300 World War II veterans," Fitzgerald said. "So, we will continue to fly next year. We will have at least one flight in the spring and one in the fall.
"We are one of the largest Honor Flight programs in the nation. We have a good program and we are known for providing our veterans with the best of care. We have a complete medical team with two emergency room physicians. We have one-on-one guardians who stay with veterans all day. We do everything to make sure our veterans are taken care of on this trip. Families want their veterans to have this experience with us."
Fitzgerald is not overwhelmed by the number of veterans who are still waiting to participate in Honor Flight. He knows the flights will become a reality for all those who want to see their memorial.
"This is an enormous opportunity and an enormous responsibility," said Fitzgerald, whose own father served as a Marine in World War II.
"This is something we have to do because these veterans have made sacrifices for our freedom. Now, they are in their 80s and 90s, and they aren't going to make this trip by themselves. Most of them have never talked about the war before. This trip lets them meet each other and talk to each other."
Besides the World War II memorial, the trip also includes visits at the Korean War Memorial, the Iwo Jima War Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery and the Women's Memorial.
"I liked everything about it," veteran Hancock said. "It's the best organized excursion. On my own, I would have had to stay two or three days to see everything we saw in 10 hours. It's given me something to think about for the next 10 to 15 years."
Honor Flight is a "wonderful opportunity" for all veterans, said WW II veteran Branch Fleming, who served with the Army's 26th Infantry Division until he succumbed to "trench feet" (a condition that causes the loss of circulation in outer extremities due to cold temperatures and wet conditions) and was reassigned to a hospital unit.
"It's hard to describe the experience. You can't describe it in a few words. It's too expansive," he said.
Once World War II veterans are flown to see their memorial, Honor Flight will begin making plans to take Korean War veterans to D.C. to see their memorial.
Fund-raising events are planned regularly to help raise money for Honor Flight. On Oct. 18, the Huntsville Community Chorus will take up an Honor Flight donation at its fall concert at the Von Braun Center. A cruise to Cozumel scheduled to depart on Jan. 31 is also an Honor Flight fund-raiser. And a fall golf tournament will be scheduled soon to raise funds.
"We need to raise another $120,000 to fly next year," Fitzgerald said.