Honor Flight helps bring closure for Veterans
Written by Bud Russo Photography by Elaine Prickett
The veterans exit the jet in Baltimore. As they walk toward baggage claim, at first, they’re surprised and then amazed. People line the concourse, applauding and cheering. One guardian, pushing a vet in a wheelchair, leans over and says, “Smile. This is all for you.”
These veterans were a contingent from Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico, including El Paso, who were participating in Mission 10 Honor Flight to recognize their service and sacrifice for the country. They were on their way to Washington DC to see the war memorials.
Honor Flight was the idea of Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain. As a Veteran’s Administration physician’s assistant in Springfield, Ohio, he listened as vets spoke of wanting to visit the WWII memorial but lacked either money, physical stamina, or both. In 2005, he arranged for a dozen vets to travel to Washington DC in private planes.
The idea caught on and, within a couple years, has grown to 131 “hubs” or chapters in 45 states. The Honor Flight Network now has flown over 180,000 veterans to memorials dedicated to them.
New Mexico has two hubs—one in Albuquerque for northern New Mexico and one for the southern half, including El Paso. According to Kathy Olson, who was operations coordinator for Mission 10, the Honor Flight hub was organized by a group of business and community leaders in 2008.
“We are now in the early planning stage for Mission 11,” she says. Because time waits for no one, there’s an urgency to the missions. World War II veterans have top priority because of their age, followed by Korean and Vietnam War veterans. Adjustments are made for “younger” vets who have an illness that might preclude them from waiting.
All expenses for the veterans are paid either through cash or in-kind donations, such as tickets donated by Southwest Airlines. The trip costs about $1,000 per veteran, and people wanting to say thank you donate money to cover those costs. Guardians are assigned to each vet. Those in wheelchairs have a one-to-one guardian. Others, who are ambulatory, might have a guardian for two or three.
“This is not a tour,” Kathy adds. “It’s an experience that brings healing and closure for many of the vets. It’s a chance…among brothers and sisters in arms…to open up and share stories they’ve keep buried for years.”
This is how Korean veteran Reuben Acosta explains his Honor Flight. “For me Korea was a very bad experience. I went in as a kid and came out as a bitter old man. I took part in 85 combat rescue missions, rescuing downed pilots. It’s hard to face death every day. I kept thinking about the families of those pilots, especially if they died before we could get them back. This is the first time in 60 years I’ve been honored for my service.”
Mission 10 began on Thursday, flying to Baltimore-Washington International and busing to Washington. TSA security provided goodie bags to the vets, who entered the El Paso concourse between lines of honor guards. On this last mission, Squire Frederick, the official town crier of Annapolis, Maryland, was on hand to announce each veteran by name as he or she exited the plane.
“It’s a poignant moment for them,” Kathy says. “They don’t expect the cheering reception, the handshakes and hugs, all the way to baggage claim.”
“People thanked me for something I felt I didn’t deserve,” says Lt. Col. Richard Benito, U.S. Army. “I was just doing the job I chose to do.”
Friday morning began with a visit to the World War II memorial at the east end of the reflection pool on the Mall between monuments to Washington and Lincoln. With music from a bagpiper, the vets first laid a memorial wreath and then took time to explore the 24 bas-relief panels depicting war scenes, the Freedom Wall with 400,000 gold stars, one for each American who died in the war, and—lest we forget—one of the two “Kilroy was here” signs.
Buses took the vets to the Vietnam and Korean War memorials. Some veterans talked of meeting a group of schoolchildren from South Korea at the memorial.
Says Leroy Madsen, who was a plane captain aboard the Essex in 1951, “It blew me away when those Korean children wanted a picture taken. They couldn’t speak English, but they thanked me, shook my hand, and bowed. I don’t think I’ve been more impressed in my life.”
Richard had a sobering experience at the Vietnam wall. “My voice broke and I cried,” he says, “thinking so many people were killed in a useless combat area where we had no reason being.”
His wife, Christina Benito, Airman First Class, USAF, had a more joyful experience at the Women in Military Service for America memorial, the only major national memorial honoring women who have defended the country throughout history. She was led to a panel with her picture and service record. “When I saw the picture my heart just … it was truly an honor … the most wonderful feeling. They didn’t forget me,” she says.
The last stop fittingly was Arlington National Cemetery, where they laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and were honored by the tomb guard sentinels. Christina says, “I almost couldn’t handle my emotions knowing what the tomb represented.”
At Friday’s evening banquet, there was an open mic and time to share experiences of the day. “Some of the veterans cannot speak to loved ones about their war experiences. They’re just too intense,” Richard explains. “But when they talk with brothers and sisters in arms, they’re all at the same starting point, and they can share stories. If they can talk to someone who’s been there, who understands, they can share their feelings and memories. It diminishes the impact war had on their lives.”
But there were also some humorous moments. Here’s how Leroy from the aircraft carrier Essex described a prank: “ As a practical joke, because our planes came under small arms fire, I had an arrow made up and stuck it in a flak hole in the wing of Joe Prendergast’s plane. He didn’t know it. When he landed on the Essex, he found the two-foot-long arrow piercing the right wing. We are almost court-martialed for the prank.”
Of her own experience as a guardian, Kathy says, “What a privilege and honor to serve the men and women who gave so much for our freedom, to hear their stories, to be in their presence. I can’t imagine doing anything better.”
“It’s an experience that brings healing and closure for many of the vets. It’s a chance…among brothers and sisters in arms…to open up and share stories they’ve keep buried for years.”
“My voice broke and I cried,” he says, “thinking so many people were killed in a useless combat area where we had no reason being.”