honor-flight-the-generational-impact

The Generational Impact of Honor Flight

I wrote this a while back. It’s inspired by true events.

Honor Flight: THE IMPACT

honor-flight-the-generational-impact

Teaching the next generation about honor and respect.

The short answer to “Who is Honor Flight?” is easy: We are a volunteer-run, non-profit organization honoring our WWII veterans with an all-expense-paid one-day trip to Washington, DC to visit the national monuments built in their honor. We also now fly Korean War veterans. Some hubs are flying Vietnam veterans, too.

We are Talons Out Honor Flight, a member of this nationwide movement, serving our Michigan veterans. The impact of our mission takes a little more story telling. I’d like to take you on a trip with me… through the eyes of a veteran and the person who accompanies them – we call them guardians. These are all true moments, woven together for you.

Jimmy reached out to Honor Flight to ask about getting his grandfather Herb on a flight. Herb, he told us, was a Colonel in World War II. Jimmy asked how to get his grandpa signed up – which is very easy to do with our online applications – and asked whether he could travel with him. So after finding out he could, he said thank you and then added, “I really need this trip.”

Oftentimes someone will say to us, “My grandpa really needs this” or “This will mean the world to my grandma.” This was a first for us.

Flight day for Jimmy and grandpa arrives. The day starts early. Very early. The pair arrives at the airport at 5:00am for registration and breakfast. The first thing Herb sees when his car door opens… is our wheelchair brigade. College-age students or active military in uniform greet Herb and Jimmy with “Welcome to your Honor Flight. Can I offer you a wheelchair?” Immediately this World War II veteran feels like a VIP. And he is.

Once Herb gets out of the car and through the entrance, our hero is greeted with cheering, handshakes and thank yous from more in-uniform military. Salutes and hugs sometimes even happen. It’s not long before Herb has a tear in his eye.

After Jimmy takes grandpa through registration … their official morning photo and a virtual corridor of grateful citizens, the pair makes it to TSA. As you know, this is usually where travelers have to practically strip down and go through all kinds of security. However traveling with Honor Flight, we get special treatment. Going through TSA is a breeze, and it’s not long before the Red Cross is serving Herb and Jimmy breakfast.

Of course if you’re familiar with the history of World War II, you know that having the Red Cross there for our veterans is special. We truly attend to every detail, including this, and Herb can already tell he’s in good hands. In fact he turns to Jimmy and tells him, “Son, this is quite a day.” Jimmy responds, “Grandpa, this is only the beginning.”

Once The Colonel and his grandson – and 70 other veterans with their guardians – make their way onto the plane, they’ve already made friends and started telling old stories. The takeoff is accompanied by saluting military members down on the tarmac and a water cannon salute by the airport fire department. They don’t do that for just any flight. The next Honor Flight mission … is off the ground. The hour or so flight is filled with anxious chatter and the anticipation of the day.

The landing at Reagan National Airport in DC is smooth and Herb is clearly excited for his day. Jimmy tells him “Grandpa, look out the window.” They see another water cannon salute – which at Reagan is only done for Honor Flights – and airport personnel waving American flags. It’s a heroes’ welcome in our nation’s capital… which is about to get bigger once the group exits the plane.

Jimmy and grandpa walk up the flight ramp into the terminal … and they’re greeted with live music, cheering and flag-wavers. Herb turns to Jimmy and for the first time of the day – but not the last – he’s speechless. Hand-shaking-civilians and uniformed military members – soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen and more greet Herb and his band of brothers and sisters.

Herb even gets a kiss on his cheek from a young woman, leaving lipstick behind. He turns to his grandson with a gleam in his eye and says. “Don’t tell your grandma!”

The pair weaves their way through a pathway of people to get down to the charter buses waiting at the curb… with their police escort. We couldn’t make it through DC without our police escorts. And they only accompany Honor Flights, the President or foreign dignitaries. This Greatest Generation is treated like royalty.

The first stop of Herb and Jimmy’s day today is Arlington National Cemetery. The men walk up to the Tomb of the Unknowns, gathering with their fellow Honor Flight travelers. A quiet settles on all in attendance. Herb leans in close to Jimmy to tell him that he’s always wanted to be here to pay tribute to the real heroes – those who didn’t make it home to their moms and their dads. For the first time that day, Jimmy wells up and brushes away a tear.

The changing of the guard goes on in its perfection, including a secret heel scuff tribute to the Honor Flight men and women in attendance. After the experience, as Jimmy and his grandpa are boarding the bus, a member of the Old Guard – the soldiers who guard the Tomb – joins us for a short history lesson. Everyone on each bus focuses on the lesson, hearing information no tourist gets to hear. Then with another “Thank you for your service,” we’re on our way once again. Driving through Arlington, Herb looks thoughtfully out the window. Jimmy knows he’s thinking of his friends who didn’t make it back from war…

As the buses pull into the next stop – the World War II monument, Jimmy asks Herb if he’s ready to see his memorial. The Colonel looks outside, sees the crowd waiting with Boy Scouts, soldiers, bikers, Girl Scouts and more all waiting to greet them, and Herb is once again struck silent.

This is where one of the biggest impacts happens on Herb’s day. He walks through the monument after shaking hands with hundreds of people, and quietly tells Jimmy about his time at war. He shares private stories of his military brothers, their shared fears and victories and some the memories he hasn’t allowed to come back for years … these are stories Herb never thought he’d share with anyone But here he is telling his grandson so many, and Jimmy just soaks it in. He asks a few questions, but mostly listens. This is where healing happens for Herb. This is where 2 generations connect and Herb realizes he wants to tell the rest of his family these stories. He tells Jimmy as much, and Jimmy swells with pride. He helped make this happen. He’s helping his grandfather to heal, and will get to see his family get to know this hero.

Jimmy is also surprised by his grandfather here. Another young woman – this one dressed in 1940s clothes and dancing with these “old men,” takes The Colonel by the hand and dances the Charleston. Jimmy didn’t know grandpa still had moves! After a few twirls and taps, the beautiful lady plants a kiss on his cheek, leaving another lipstick print behind. Jimmy goes to wipe it away and grandpa pushes his hand away. “No, no son … I’m collecting those!”

This is one of our favorite times of the day. But everything has a time limit. And our time with Herb and Jimmy at the World War II monument is coming to a close. At this point, The Colonel is getting a little tired and asks Jimmy to get him a wheelchair. It’s a long walk down the reflecting pool to the Vietnam Wall.

Picture this pair walking up to the black granite memorial to our fallen Vietnam heroes. As the names come into focus, Herb asks Jimmy to help him find a specific name. Jimmy doesn’t recognize it, but he knows he shares the same last name. They find which panel this name is on … and find the name. Herb stands up from his wheelchair with some effort. He puts his hand on the name. He lowers his head. After a quiet moment he stands up tall … salutes the panel … and sits down in his wheelchair. He nods to Jimmy and they begin the long walk up the cobblestones and to the exit in silence.

Walking through the small wooded area to the Korean War monument, Jimmy stops at a park bench to get water for himself and his grandfather. He sits down so he’s at eye-level with The Colonel. He looks at this man with a new outlook. In front of him he sees at once a strong man who led his family through good times and bad … as well as a frail man who’s lived more than 90 years. He speaks up, “Grandpa, who was that name on the Wall?”

Herb looks Jimmy in the eye – almost looking through him into the past – and says, “That’s your uncle. My son. He went off to Vietnam, and never made it back.”

Jimmy, not sure of what to say, simply puts his hand on his grandpa’s knee. “I never knew… I’m so sorry you lost your son, grandpa…”

After a rest, Jimmy and his grandpa move on from the bench to the Korean War memorial. Here they see a beautiful wreath and hear the story of how every day a South Korean family puts a wreath here to thank their American heroes for the service to their country. Here they see the haunting images carved into the dark wall by the tall men in their ponchos. Here they honor another generation of fighters, coming to the aid of another people. And here is where once again Jimmy feels connected to his grandfather in a way he didn’t know was possible. They’ve shared this day and these memories, bringing them closer.

The final stop for Herb and his Honor Flight this day is the Marine Corps monument. This giant tribute to the landing at Iwo Jima. It’s a chance to pay tribute to the Greatest Generation, their tenacity and their impact on the world. Jimmy and Herb get their picture in front of the statue with a local lawmaker like Herb is the celebrity. It’s a great end to the day as we get ready to take the final drive to the airport and head for home. It’s been a good day … but a long day, too.

On the flight home, we have a special surprise for our veterans. Just as they’re settling in for a relaxing flight … maybe a nap … our bus captains and volunteers stand up … our flight coordinator gets on the intercom and belts out: “MAIL CALL!”

We then proceed to hand out packets of mail to our heroes. Of course back in the war, our soldiers, sailors and Marines didn’t have email, texts, phone calls … so mail was an important taste of home. Mail call for Honor Flight is letters from family, friends and our community thanking these men and women for their service. While reading his letters, Herb turns to Jimmy with more tears in his eyes and says, “I didn’t think anyone cared about my service. I never talked about it. How did you…” and can’t finish his thought. He smiles at Jimmy and goes back to reading his letters and cards. It’s a moving experience.

Upon arrival in Kalamazoo, Herb is clearly on cloud nine. Jimmy hasn’t seen his grandpa this active this late in the evening in years. As they exit the flight tunnel, a pair of girls meet them – one with a US flag, one with a poppy. The thank yous don’t stop. Herb and Jimmy round the corner and exit the flight area to a crowd of Honor Guard, bikers with US flags (Patriot Guard Riders), firefighters and police officers all ready to thank them and welcome them home.

One last bus trip … the veterans have to board buses one more time, for one more surprise. Jimmy tells The Colonel, “A few people came out to welcome us home so we had move to a different venue.” The 3 mile drive is led by fire trucks and bikers, finishing the trip with one last royal escort. The homecoming crowd of almost 3,000 people stands at the ready. As Herb steps off the bus, he hears the cheering and sees the crowd. Immediately a wheelchair is brought up to him with a firefighter at the controls. “I’m here if you need me, sir.” It’s his son; Jimmy’s dad. Three generations of men begin the walk through  hundreds of patriotic and grateful community members.

Walking through the crowd, Herb shakes nearly every hand. Children, Scouts, family, strangers … all patriots just wanting to pay tribute to these heroes. At the end of the parade, The Colonel turns to Jimmy and tells him, “I’ve never shook so many hands in my life. This is the welcome home I never thought I needed. I can’t thank you enough. I don’t know how you did it. And how these folks pulled it off. What a day.”

Months later Jimmy comes to an Honor Flight gathering. He addresses those in attendance to share a little about his experience.

“I want to thank you for a special day. I can’t tell you how often my grandfather has talked about his Honor Flight. He’s telling stories about his time in World War II – many of them no one has ever heard. It’s just amazing. But I want to also thank you for me. Honor Flight saved my life…”

“You see, I didn’t tell you before the flight, but I’m also a veteran. I fought in the war in Afghanistan… multiple tours. And I’ve been struggling a bit. More than a bit. I was this close to giving up. I wanted to not live anymore. I would have left my 3 young kids without a father. In fact my plan was to take The Colonel on his trip, and end my own life. I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. And no one understood. I felt completely alone.”

“But after this Honor Flight with my grandpa, I realized I wasn’t alone. My grandfather and I connected and I understood that I’m not all on my own. I decided not to go through with it. Now I spend every Saturday morning with my grandpa, talking with him about our experiences. I’m not ready to share with anyone else, but The Colonel gets it. So if it wasn’t for you all here in this room, my kids wouldn’t have a father. My mom and dad would have had to bury a son. My grandfather would have outlived his grandson. So thank you.”

Honor Flight focuses on our “senior” generations. But as you can see, the impact is felt well beyond that.

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