There was something noticeably different about Reagan National Airport on Saturday, September 19th. Outside, it was an absolutely gorgeous fall day in DC with the sun shining as brightly as it possibly could. But the sun, in all of its glory, was not the brightest part of this memorable Saturday; not even close. Inside of the “A” terminal, at gate 9, the red, white and blue balloons and streamers were hung. A three piece band, assembled behind the check-in desk, played one proud patriotic song after another, including the official song for each branch of the U.S. military. Nearly a hundred people of all walks of life gathered around the jet way, excitedly cheering and clapping, waving American flags, and anxiously awaiting their arrival.
But who were they? Who could possibly deserve such dramatic fanfare on a Saturday morning at DCA? Maybe Colin Powell and Bill Clinton decided to take a commercial flight into DC just for kicks? Nope. Way Better. These people, volunteers, airport employees, passengers and even U.S. Senators, were there to welcome a group of absolutely tremendous American heroes. They were all here to welcome almost 400 heroes to the home of their very own memorial. The one they fought for. The one their friends gave their lives for. After almost 65 years, these World War II veterans were getting the chance to see America’s ever-lasting symbol of recognition of their service, dedication and ultimate sacrifices.
The atmosphere of the arrival area could be described as euphorically patriotic, overflowing with excitement, elation and pride. As the WWII veterans, each with a volunteer, made their way off of the plane and moved toward the terminal exit, they were escorted through the welcoming line which included crowds of people on both sides looking to simply shake a vets hand and say a quick “Thank you for your service” or a “Welcome to Washington”. Some of the veterans were just as excited as the crowd, grinning ear-to-ear and eagerly throwing their hands in the air to wave right back at their newest fans. Some were in shock of what was surely an unexpected welcome reception for these most humble men and women. And some could simply not prevent their emotions from overwhelming them as they let a few tears roll down their faces. This was truly a touching and memorable moment, but not only for the veterans who were flown in from Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. This was a moving and unforgettable experience for yours truly and, without a doubt, every single other man, women and child who participated.
Senator Al Franken (D-MN), who spent many years entertaining troops through the USO, quietly showed up in the welcoming line to shake hands and even get in a few hugs and snapshots with the passing vets, about half of whom were being pushed by their volunteer in a wheelchair. Following their exciting arrival, which included two fire trucks spraying water over the taxiing plane on the runway to form a dramatic entrance way, the veterans and their helpers boarded charter buses for the District. Their time had finally come to be able to see their memorial first hand, in addition to some also touring Arlington National Cemetery, and other local war memorials, depending on how much time they had before needing to return to the airport for their flight home.
Former Senators Elizabeth Dole and her husband Bob Dole, previous Presidential candidate, greeted the veterans as they arrived at the World War II memorial and then joined them for a panoramic group shot. After their brief meeting with the Senators, they were escorted into the actual memorial and spent time looking around at the monuments representing the states they hailed from and the battles they fought in. Many even took pictures of their own to remember this moment which, for many, is a once in a life time event.
“It was overwhelming, reading the inscriptions and remembering that so many died so that we could be here today.” That’s how Bill Williams, a photographer in the Air Force during WWII, described his feelings to me after getting a chance to experience the memorial and then sit down for a bite to eat, which is also provided for them by their hosts. Bill, who happens to be a former 22 year editor of his local paper, the Gaston Gazette, was contacted by the local Rotary club, which was working with his retirement home in Gastonia, NC to organize and fund the trip. He commented on the fact that the trip “takes so much organization”. He is most certainly right; these trips must take a tremendous amount of effort and organization and there were volunteers helping out wherever you looked.
Chris Perdue, of Derwood, MD, was volunteering at the memorial to help make sure each of the vets received a meal and could relax on the National Mall before boarding the buses again. Chris, who brought 7 fellow 4-H’ers with him from Montgomery County clubs, was making his 8th trip to help out with the veteran’s flights. He estimates that he has brought close to 150 people out to volunteer over the last two years. It’s people like Chris that make these kinds of remarkable events a reality.
But how is all of this really possible?
It’s possible because of a large group of volunteers, donors and supporters organized by the amazing folks over at the Honor Flight Network. A non-profit organization, which receives no government funding and even rightfully stresses that they do not accept donations from WWII veterans because “they have given enough”, Honor Flight started in 2005 with a mission “to take America’s veterans to Washington D.C. to visit those memorials dedicated to their service, free of charge.” In 2005, they were able to bring 137 vets. In 2008, that number skyrocketed to over 11,000. And this year? This year, they hope to bring nearly 25,000. It’s an incredibly admirable mission and goal which is driven by the fact that over 1,000 of these veterans are dying – every day. Most will never have the opportunity to experience what I’ve described above; to experience the ultimate “thank you” from their country. Time is not on their side unfortunately and it is predicted that the number of living World War II vets in the US will drop from 2.8 million to just 158,000 in 12 years. That is out of the nearly 16 million that served their country during WWII.
Flights are scheduled for various weekends throughout the year and come in to all three local airports. Some come by charter flight and some come in donated seats on regularly scheduled commercial flights. But they all come for one reason and they all come because volunteers and generous donations make it possible. Volunteer your time, or donate what you can, today at www.HonorFlight.org. Trust me, after this, you really will experience what giving back is all about.
Photos of Other Memorable Moments
I came away with so many memorable photographs of the event that I just had to share a few more below.