Honor Flight San Diego returns to a hero’s welcome!
By Holly Shaffner
“It was the best weekend of my life,” said a WWII veteran at his recent “Tour of Honor” homecoming at Lindbergh Field.
His “Tour of Honor” trip was provided by Honor Flight San Diego, a local non-profit organization that takes the most senior veterans and veterans who have terminal illnesses to Washington, DC to visit the memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifice.
The trip is more than just visiting memorials – it is also a time for these veterans to make new friends, share their stories and build that military camaraderie they may have missed for the last 70 years. For 72 continuous hours, they are thanked and appreciated for their military service.
Honor Flight San Diego has been flying veterans since 2010 and after this past trip, they have flown 1,147 veterans. The trip is at no cost to the veteran and is funded through donations. The organization flew to Washington on September 29th and came back to a hero’s welcome on October 1st.
On this last flight, they had 78 WWII veterans, one Korea-era veteran, five female veterans, three veterans over the age of 100, four former Prisoners of War, Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipients and one of the Navy’s first black Chief Petty Officers who recently had a building named for him at Naval Air Station North Island. The Korea-era veteran on this trip was just eight years old when he and his family were taken as prisoners in WWII and with him on this trip was one of the camp’s liberators who freed him from three years of captivity.
On the morning the veterans leave for Washington, DC, many are so excited that many can’t sleep the night before and many arrive to the airport well before the scheduled report time. They are flown by charter aircraft to Baltimore, MD and on this leg of the trip they receive a big surprise – Mail Call.
They are given letters, cards and pictures made by local scout troops, elementary schools and organizations. But the ones that are most special are those from their family. Each veteran receives a package of mail and they open every envelope and handle every letter and picture with great care.
On this past trip, one Honor Flight team leader had an extra special picture waiting for her WWII veteran. His great granddaughter had just been born a few days before and the family didn’t have a way for him to see her via electronic means. The team leader collected the picture from the family through email, printed it out and had it in his Mail Call letters. When he opened the letters, he saw the picture and the note from his grandson and his eyes filled with tears of joy.
When the flight lands at BWI, the veterans are greeted by a red, white and blue water salute from the airport’s fire department and as they exit the plane, there is patriotic music playing and approximately 50 local active duty and veterans welcome them to Baltimore. As the veterans get through a gauntlet of well-wishers, they say that they have never felt so special. Little do they know that is more coming.
After getting checked in the hotel and having a dinner with their fellow veterans, they retire for the night after a long day. On Saturday they board charter buses and head to Washington, DC. Their first stop is the National WWII Memorial, followed by the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, the U.S. Air Force Memorial and the U.S. Navy Yard Museum. One of the most impactful stops is at Arlington National Cemetery where they witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony. The women veterans stop at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial where they are greeted by retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught and are presented with certificates and entered into the memorial’s database. When the September trip arrived back in San Diego, a female USMC WWII veteran told a news reporter that she had been “inducted into the Military Women’s Hall of Fame”.
On this past trip and for the first time, the WWII veterans were treated to a tour of the U.S. Naval Academy and had lunch with the midshipmen. This stop on the trip was especially emotional as the four former Prisoners of War were asked to haul up the American Flag to be flown over the Academy that day and a guardian who had served in several combat tours in Iraq led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance. After lunch, the WWII veterans and midshipmen took pictures together and the tears flowed as these salty Naval and Marine Corps men and women saw themselves in the young, energetic leaders of tomorrow.
The final surprise of the trip is the San Diego homecoming. The doors open to the plane and they can already hear the crowd cheering for them – but they don’t know it is for them. They get to the top of the escalator or the elevator and it is a sea of red, white and blue, American flags and 800-1000 people chanting – USA! USA! USA! When they realize this is THEIR homecoming, it is hard to control the emotions, even for the most hardened of the military men and women.
That is the homecoming they deserve, because after all, they are the Greatest Generation!
Honor Flight San Diego’s next trip will be in May 2018. If you know a WWII veteran who has not been on Tour of Honor, or if you want to volunteer with the organization, please go to: www.honorflightsandiego.org and complete an application.