Every once in a while, somebody comes up with an idea that is so great, people ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The Honor Flight is one of those incredible ideas. And it has taken off, soared to new heights, stuck the landing and disembarked to a raucous celebration.
Established in 2005, the Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization that flies U.S. military veterans from across the country to Washington, D.C. – free of charge. There they spend three days visiting the memorials dedicated to the wars in which they fought, as well as many others.
Sites seen along this tour include Arlington National Cemetery, the World War II Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Navy Memorial, the Marine Corps War Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and others.
Program began in 2005
The program started off humbly, with six small planes flying 12 veterans to Washington, D.C. in May 2005. But it became so popular so quickly that soon commercial jets were being used to transport the large number of veterans expressing interest in it.
Approximately 244,000 veterans have been flown to the nation’s capital for this purpose over the past 16 years.
Honor Flights typically transport between 25 and 100 veterans and volunteer guardians to D.C. The cost of about $25,000 to $100,000 per flight is covered by donations, as well as what the airlines contribute.
Originating from across the country, the flights land at one of three airports: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport.
Heroes’ Welcome, a subgroup of the Honor Flight Network, conducts welcoming ceremonies at the airports. After landing in Washington, the veterans are escorted by their guardians to hotels and then to the various memorials over several days.
Hoping to resume flights in fall
A regional Honor Flight chapter based in Colorado Springs, Colorado plans to resume its periodic flights this September, following a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Honor Flight SoCo Chapter President Pat Novak can hardly wait.
“We’re very much looking forward to returning to the flights, and so are the veterans,” said Pat, who served in the U.S. Air Force for 32 years, including active duty, the National Guard and the Reserves.
Pat was stationed in Germany, served two tours each in Korea and the Middle East, and also spent some time in Central America.
“We’ve really missed it. I get calls every day from veterans who have gone and those who want to go for the first time. Our veterans and their families are our biggest supporters.”
Southwest Airlines gets ‘on board’
Pat said the Colorado Springs hub was reorganized right before COVID, but several of them picked it back up in 2020.
“We have five members on the board and a bunch of volunteers,” Pat said. “We have many forward thinkers that honor the World War II veterans, and look forward to the new generation of Vietnam veterans.
“More and more women are also getting involved, which is great, and we’re trying to get Gulf War veterans as guardians.
“Southwest Airlines has been wonderful to us. They go all out to make the veterans feel special. It’s fun to get on the plane when they know we’re coming. They know how to work with the veterans. Sometimes the flight attendants will even wear red lipstick and give them kisses on the cheek.”
‘I was that guy’
There are countless details that go into organizing an Honor Flight. It begins with veterans filling out an application. Generally speaking, veterans who are able to fly can go. They range in age from their 60s into their 90s.
“We meet a week before the flight to D.C. to go over the agenda and give them their shirts, hats, jackets and a lot of information.” Pat said. “We meet at a hotel the night before our flight and serve breakfast in the morning. Then we bus them to the Denver airport.
“They get a warm greeting when they reach our nation’s capital and we go to a couple of memorials, such as the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial and the Dutch Carillon.
“Then in the morning we start at the Lincoln Memorial and proceed to the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Wall and, of course, Arlington Cemetery. The Arlington National Cemetery staff treat us great and give us access to the VIP area at the Tomb of the Unknown. We also visit various gravesites.
“The closer we get to the World War II memorial, the quieter it gets. The brothers and sisters we remember. The fathers, grandfathers that fought against unbelievable odds. These veterans came back, changed clothes and were working in offices and factories a week later.
“Afterwards, we take a short walk to the Korean War Memorial, where they first see the 19 statues, and you’ll hear them say things like, ‘I was that guy’ or ‘I carried that M14 rifle.’
“This is a multi-generational memorial. They have all seen the hollowness of the faces, the true and absolute fatigue. These veterans are the ‘forgotten.’ They went back to work and most never knew they were gone. The Guardians are also struck by this memorial. Especially how personal it is.
“After spending some time there, we walk over to the Vietnam Memorial. For some, it’s a very slow walk. Almost hesitantly. This memorial puts names to those killed. These veterans also never had a ‘homecoming.’
“Almost every person on the flight will have a story. ‘My neighbor, Frank, had a boy killed in Vietnam,’ or ‘I was in the hospital and remember the eyes of the nurse before they operated on me.’ And then again, there are the comrades. We need to remember to respect these veterans and the ones who paid the ultimate price every single day.
“The next day we visit the Smithsonian Institution, the Air Museum and the Navy Museum. This puts together the stories, experiences, friends and deeds they and others had done. This day is lighter, each veteran feeling the camaraderie they knew in another lifetime.”
Serving brothers and sisters
What made Pat decide to get involved with Honor Flight? A love for other veterans and a strong belief that they deserve better than what they get.
“My uncle was a World War II Marine who committed suicide after suffering from decades of PTSD,” Pat said. “I knew what it was at the time, but people in general didn’t understand combat stress. They thought you could just shake it off and move on.
“Both of my sons have served in the military and they understand it as well. Both are part of the ‘Order of the Purple Heart.’ They and their friends volunteered and continued to go back even after getting wounded. I am in constant contact with many other veterans also.
“So what really gets me up in the morning is serving our veterans. Serving our brothers and sisters, treating them like they should be treated and maintaining relationships with the veterans’ families after we get back home from the flights.
“Many of these veterans have never been properly thanked by the community, so that’s what I want to do for them.”
Banquet raises over $18,000
In June 2021, Honor Flight SoCo conducted a fundraising banquet attended by 160 people. They raised more than $18,000, which will be used to send veterans and their guardians on the next Honor Flight.
“People hear our message and they help out if they can,” Pat said. “But what really strikes a chord is when they hear the veterans talk about how important it is for them to be able to visit or re-visit these memorials.
“For a vast majority of the veterans who go, it’s their first time seeing these memorials. Most of them had to immediately start working as soon as they returned from their service, and they never had the time or resources to go.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for veterans to make this trip. Many of them think that nobody has the same feelings they do, but we show them that people care by the way they are treated by their guardians. There’s a metamorphosis that goes on with both the veterans and nonveterans alike.”
4Patriots contributed several auction items for the fundraiser. Including four Patriot Power Cells, a 72-Hour Survival Food Kit, a Tactical Flashlight and a Patriot Pure Personal Water Filter.
“The 4Patriots products did really well in the auction,” Pat said. “It’s obvious they are high-quality products and we got more than what they market for. Those products created a bidding war on their box, so we really appreciate your donations.”
Every donation helps
Those wishing to make a donation to the Honor Flight SoCo chapter may do so by visiting HonorFlightSoCo.net and clicking on “Donate.”
“The cost for a flight is $1,000 for each veteran and another $1,000 for each guardian, so every donation helps,” Pat said. “From all the volunteers, including me, to the Guardians, all of our donations go to getting these veterans to D.C. so they can see their memorials.”
Those funds cover:
- A pre-flight luncheon with an information booklet for both the veteran and guardian
- Honor Flight shirts and other Honor Flight wear (veterans receive jackets, ponchos, hats, etc.)
- Bus transportation to Denver, in D.C. and back home again
- Airfare from Denver International Airport to D.C.
- All meals
- A memory book of their specific mission
- Wheelchairs and walkers as needed
“It’s difficult to describe how much these trips mean to the people who so faithfully served their country so that we can have the freedoms we have,” Pat said. “We live by our motto: ‘We have an obligation to the soldier that did not come home. To honor the veteran who did.’”