There is no better way to visit the war memorials in Washington D.C. than in the company of our nation’s war veterans. I went on the Inland Northwest Honor Flight to D.C. on October 8-9 as a volunteer “guardian” and was deeply moved many times during the trip. It was my good fortune to be matched with two fine gentlemen whose perspectives and memories gave special meaning to the experience.
The dedication of the national World War II memorial in 2004 spurred the organization of the Honor Flight network. A retired USAF officer and physician assistant, Earl Morse, conceived of the idea while working with veterans in Springfield, Ohio. When it became apparent that few of the aging WWII veterans had any hope of making the difficult and expensive trip to visit their memorial in D.C., he initiated the process by enlisting several fellow private pilots to the cause. In May 2005, the pilots rented planes for a day and carried a dozen vets – at no cost to them – to Washington. Word spread and the non-profit Honor Flight organization grew quickly, branching out into dozens of hubs, each responsible for its own fundraising, each fully committed to getting their local vets to D.C. Commercial and chartered airliners carried scores of veterans at a time and in 2008 Southwest Airlines partnered with the organization, providing thousands of free tickets. Nearly a decade since that first trip, Honor Flights have brought over 100,000 veterans from across the U.S. to the nation’s capital, always safely, and always free of charge.
The Inland Northwest Honor Flight organization in Spokane Washington was founded in the spring of 2009. This fall’s trip was their twenty-fifth flight; altogether they have brought nearly one thousand local veterans to Washington D.C. Our Honor Flight carried ninety veterans, half from WWII and half from the Korean War – a proportion that reflects the toll of time and the Honor Flight commitment to recognize veterans from all our nations’ wars. In a solemn moment prior to departure early Wednesday morning, INWHF founder Tony Lamanna dedicated this trip to the memory of Sgt Jacob M. Hess (USMC) and Cpl Justin Clouse (US Army), who lost their lives in our current conflicts. We carried thoughts of those two men and all the fallen who will never have an Honor Flight.
On paper, our itinerary looked daunting. How could we squeeze so much into so little time? How would our veterans, all in their 80s and 90s, bear up under the strain? In short, it was “Can Do” all the way. Every aspect of the trip went smoothly thanks to the experience, attention to detail, and dedication of the INWHF directors, staff, and volunteers. The organization is well funded by generous and sustained charitable donations and sponsors. A chartered plane and police escort for the D.C. busses kept us on schedule; we had plenty of wheelchairs and water (and always knew where to find the bathrooms) and time to explore and quietly reflect at each memorial. Everywhere along the way people waved, shook hands with the veterans, and thanked them.
After our flight landed at Dulles airport late Wednesday afternoon, we used the rest of the daylight to visit the Marine Corps memorial featuring a large bronze statue of the flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima. Around the base we read the names of famous Marine campaigns throughout history, including Wake Island. Sadly, there is room for many more battle sites. In the waning light we made our way to the nearby Air Force memorial with its three soaring arches. We watched a blood moon rise over the Pentagon before making our way to the hotel for a nice banquet and a short night’s sleep.
Blue skies, warm temperatures, and that terrific police escort stayed with us through the second day. Smiles lit up many a face on our bus as we whisked by lines of stopped traffic and through red lights. (Vet joke: if I had this at home I could get my driver’s license back!) We watched the changing of the guard and a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery, then visited the Women in Military Service for America memorial. Our Honor Flight included four women veterans and I was very interested to hear their stories. The highlight of the day for many was the World War II memorial. I had been there in 2004 just after it was completed, but it was a special honor to visit with the veterans. The memorial’s pavilions, pools, and pillars invite solemn reflection and the long vistas to Washington and Lincoln memorials offer balance.
In the early afternoon we visited the Korean and Vietnam War memorials, which flank the Lincoln memorial. I was especially moved by the Korean War site with its nineteen lifelike steel statues straining through the brush. In our company were many veterans of this “Forgotten War,” and we were honored to be in their presence. I know some of the guardians were Vietnam War veterans: their day will come. Our tour ended with the Navy memorial, where I took special note of the Seabees plaque and one featuring the Wilkes Expedition of 1840.
The Honor Flight was certainly a memorable experience and I hope to go again. Perhaps on the next trip we will be able to include the new American Veterans Disabled for Life memorial, dedicated just last week. My real hope is that someday Honor Flights will be obsolete: no more wars, no more fallen soldiers, and no more veterans bearing the scars and memories of war.