Honoring Maryland’s veterans
While waiting for a flight at BWI Airport, passengers hear an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, please join us at gate seven for a special Honor Flight. Please welcome our veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.”
A crowd forms, and people crane their necks, waiting for the plane’s passengers to disembark. A thin man in a dark blue military veteran cap rolls out in a wheelchair. Applause echoes through the terminal.
Behind him, more and more older veterans stream out of the gate, looking surprised by the crowd. Strangers reach out to shake their hands, pat their shoulders and thank them before the vets are escorted a one-day tour of the war memorials in Washington, D.C., and Arlington Cemetery.
Although many veterans — and onlookers — have tears in their eyes, that’s not the point of an Honor Flight, said Jeff Miller, who co-founded the Honor Flight Network in 2007.
“We don’t take them here to make them cry. We want to give them a personal day of honor,” Miller said. “They’ll tell us, ‘This was the best day of my life.’”
Based in Springfield, Ohio, the Honor Flight Network and its 133 hubs in 45 states organize hundreds of flights each year for older veterans. To date, more than 222,000 veterans have visited the memorials for the first time through the free program.
New local hub
But what about veterans who live in neighboring Maryland and Delaware — so close by a flight isn’t required? That question only came up recently, oddly enough.
A Southwest Airlines employee from a military family helped start the new Honor Flight Maryland after she participated in honor flights from other states and felt Maryland’s vets should be eligible, too.
Among the first Marylanders on the group’s inaugural trip on May 11 was 101-year-old Vivian Corbett Bailey of Howard County. She served as a lieutenant in the segregated Women’s Army Corps from 1943 to 1946.
Bailey has received many awards for her military and volunteer service. In fact, her name is etched in stone on a monument at Arlington Cemetery. But the first time she laid eyes on it was on her Honor Flight Maryland trip.
She and about 30 other veterans boarded a bus in Ellicott City at 8 a.m., then visited the World War II Memorial and the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, among others.
“It was a long day; it was a good day, though,” Bailey said. “I was particularly pleased to see the WWII Memorial. It was a well-organized affair; it ran very smoothly. They’ve done a lot of honoring and I’m humbled by that.”
Two men, one idea
The Honor Flight Network was the brainchild of two men who had the same idea at around the same time.
In 2005, Retired Air Force Captain Earl Morse was working at a Veterans’ Affairs hospital in southwestern Ohio as a physician assistant. He asked his patients who had served in WWII if they had seen the memorial that had recently opened to honor the 16 million veterans of the war. None had.
Hoping to right that wrong, Morse enlisted a dozen fellow pilots to help. On the first so-called Honor Flight on May 21, 2005, Morse and his volunteer pilots flew 12 veterans in six small planes to Manassas Regional Airport for a day-trip into D.C.
The same year, Miller, owner of a dry-cleaning company in Hendersonville, N.C., discovered that his late mother and father had been charter members of the World War II Memorial.
Distressed that his parents, along with other vets who lived far from Washington, D.C., would never see the memorials constructed in their honor, Miller formed a company called HonorAir and began flying them to D.C. in chartered jets.
“I decided that I would take every WWII vet in our county to see that memorial, and it snowballed from there,” said Miller. He brought more than 300 of them to D.C. in a year. “It lifted me and a lot of people up.”
When Miller heard that Morse was also transporting veterans to the D.C. memorials, the two merged their companies and formed the Honor Flight Network in 2007.
For their efforts, President George W. Bush awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2008 to Miller and Morse.
Tours are short and sweet
The veterans’ one-day tour begins with an early flight from their hometown to one of the D.C.-area airports. Veterans are greeted with applause and shuttled to their chartered buses, well stocked with snacks and water. They visit four or five sites, stop for lunch and dinner, and fly home.
“It’s a well-choreographed day,” Miller said, noting that the hubs, or local chapters, coordinate with each other so as not to overwhelm a site with too many visitors at once.
Hub volunteers (called guardians) assist veterans, and a registered nurse and certified emergency medical technician accompany each group as well.
“National Park Service Police allow us to have police escorts so that even on congested days in D.C., we make sure our vets see [as much as] possible,” said Honor Flight Network’s CEO, Meredith Rosenbeck.
Each charter flight costs between $45,000 and $75,000, which is covered by private donations. Each local chapter does its own fundraising, Rosenbeck said, but Honor Flight’s national headquarters provides grants to each of the hubs to make sure they can get their veterans to this area.
Southwest Airlines, a corporate sponsor, gives Honor Flight Network with roundtrip ticket vouchers for the chartered flights — since 2006, more than 9,000 free tickets. The Hilton BWI is also a corporate sponsor, along with Breitling and Snap-On.
The Honor Flight Network flights operate in May and June, then take a break during the hot summer months — to protect older veterans from heat stroke — before resuming tours in September and October.
On the ground at BWI
During the busy months of May and June, Glen Anderson, 77, works between 75 and 80 hours a week. The Maryland resident helps as many as 30 busloads of veterans in one weekend.
“We have the opportunity to meet the history that’s passing through,” said Anderson, Honor Flight Network’s BWI Airport Coordinator volunteer. “It’s an honor. A lot of ‘allergies’ develop, shall we say. People need tissues and handkerchiefs.”
Anderson remembers one particular Honor Flight arrival at BWI. A teenage bystander joined the crowd and asked him what was going on in the terminal.
“These are World War II veterans,” Anderson told the boy, who still seemed confused.
“Did you see Saving Private Ryan?” Anderson asked him. “This is them.”
“Oh, they’re actors?” the boy asked.
“No,” Anderson replied. “This is the original cast.”
For an application, visit honorflightnetwork.org and search for your local hub. About 38,000 veterans are on the waiting list for an Honor Flight. World War II vets get first priority, along with terminally ill veterans.