After almost sixty years, Washington finally built a memorial to honor all of our World War II veterans. Editor Robert Dole was instrumental in getting the memorial built. It was finally dedicated in May 2004. There are more than two million surviving World War II veterans. Unfortunately, based on recent 2008 statistics, we are losing World War II veterans at the rate of approximately 1,000 per day.
The Honor Flight Network program was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force captain. Captain Morse wanted to honor the veterans that he had been taking care of for the past twenty-seven years. After retiring from the Air Force in 1998, Captain Morse was hired by the Department of Veterans Affairs to work in a small clinic in Springfield, Ohio. After the World War II Memorial was completed and dedicated, it quickly became the topic of conversation among Captain Morse s World War II veteran patients.
Captain Morse consistently asked his veterans if they would ever travel out to Washington, D.C. to visit their memorial. Most said that before they died, they hoped to make the trip to the nation s capital. Each time a veteran came for a follow up visit, Captain Morse would bring up the issue of visiting the World War II Memorial. Although the enthusiasm for a visit was high, many veterans spoke about the reality of not having the finances or the health to get there on their own.
Most of these senior heroes were in their 80 s and did not have the wherewithal to complete a trip to Washington on their own. Captain Morse was determined to find a way to support these senior heroes in visiting their memorial in Washington. In addition to being a physician assistant, Captain Morse was also a pilot and had a private plane. He was a member of a large aero club located in Dayton, Ohio.
In December of 2004, Captain Morse asked one of his World War II veteran patients if it would be alright if he personally flew him to Washington, D.C., free of charge, to visit his memorial. His patient broke down and cried. He told Captain Morse that at his age, he would probably never be able to see his memorial through his own resources. So, he graciously accepted the offer and said that he would be forever grateful. In January of 2005, Captain Morse addressed about 150 members of his aero club. He expressed his desire to create a volunteer program to fly veterans of World War II to their memorial. He indicated that there were two other major stipulations to his request. The first was that the veterans had to go for free and pay for nothing. The second was that the pilots had to personally escort the veterans around Washington, D.C. for the entire day.
After Captain Morse spoke, eleven pilots, who had never met any of his patients, stepped up to volunteer. That day gave birth to Honor Flight.
Soon after the dedicated volunteers stepped forward, a board was formed. Funds were raised and the first formal flight took to the air in May 2005. By the end of the first year, Honor Flight had transported 137 World War II veterans to their memorial in Washington, D.C.
By 2006, commercial flights were exclusively used due to the number of veterans on the waiting list and the adverse weather conditions which prohibited the smaller aircraft from participating on a regular basis. The mission and ideals of Honor Flight began to spread across America. In their fourth year, Honor Flight had safely transported 11,137 veterans to see their World War II Memorial at no cost to the veterans. This year they have established a goal of safely transporting 25,000 veterans to see their memorial at no cost to veterans.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Christopher Cosich and two of his volunteers who founded the Long Island chapter of Honor Flight in October 2007. He movingly talked about the need to express to the greatest generation, our appreciation and recognition for their heroic service to our nation during World War II. He pointedly shared that none of the senior veterans who he spoke with were seeking recognition, but rather were grateful for the opportunity to serve our nation.
In that same interview, I was fortunate to interview Gil Blum, an 82 year old veteran who served during World War II in his late teens. I asked him to describe his experience having participated in an Honor Flight from MacArthur Airport to Washington, D.C. He began to fill up with tears as he recounted that powerful experience.
He gathered with twenty other senior veterans at the Southwest terminal at MacArthur. They were the last to board the plane. The senior flight attendant shared with all on board who the last group of passengers to board was. As the veterans boarded their flight, those already seated began to cheer and clap for these unsung heroes. The veterans were overwhelmed, many of them fighting back the tears as they went to their seats.
The flight to Baltimore-Washington Airport was less than an hour. Once they landed, all the other passengers deplaned first. Unbeknownst to these veterans, as they deplaned into the main terminal, they were announced as members of the greatest generation " World War II veterans. The people in the crowded terminal began to cheer and applaud these men and women in their 80 s and 90 s. As they made their way through the terminal to the vans that were waiting, the applause and cheering continued.
Within an hour, these courageous heroes reached their memorial at the great Mall in downtown Washington. As they were escorted to the memorial, the emotion on the part of the veterans and their escorts was indescribable. Mr. Blum said he did not expect to be so overwhelmed. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he spoke of all the memories that came flooding back as he touched his memorial. He talked about the men he had met while at war and those who had courageously died in the service of our nation.
At the end of the day, when they were ready to board the buses for the airport, all he and the others could say was thank you!