This is one of the coolest things in which I've ever taken part.
If you don’t know about the Honor Flight Network, it’s a group of ordinary Americans who believe it’s high time we thanked the brave men and women who literally DID “save the world for Democracy”—the Veterans of World War II, truly “The Greatest Generation.”
Alamo Honor Flight—and I also can’t say enough about Tracy Huff and the other great folks there—all volunteers who have “day jobs”—takes Veterans from the San Antonio area to DC to see the World War II Memorial. There's no charge to the Veterans---they've already "paid". It’s an amazing thing.
AHF consists of a regular staff; they have these things down to a precision that the armed services could admire. They take along "Guardians"--others, non-regular, who help. I was privileged to be a Guardian on Alamo Honor Flight #003. I had responsibility for Dad, Mr. Theriot, and Mr. Gonzales, three Great Americans (and I do not use that term with even a touch of irony; they really are).
We left the San Antonio American Legion Post 2 on Fredericksburg Rd. in San Antonio with the Vets on the "big" bus and us Guardians (where we belonged) on "the short bus" ;-). Along with a full motorcycle escort from the San Antonio PD (we flew through red lights), we were escorted by a large contingent of veterans on motorcycles. In short, we had an escort barely matched by Prince William and Kate Middleton.
We arrived at the airport and Southwest Airlines met us at the bus. A word about Southwest--they don't advertise this, they don't trumpet this, but they provide--at no charge--the airfare for some (but not all) the veterans. We, of course, paid, but it is a really cool thing that Southwest does. Next time you fly, try Southwest first, please, as a thank you for this cool thing they do.
After Southwest checked us in at the bus, TSA let us go through the "Pilots and employees" line, and it's the only time I've known TSA to be friendly and helpful.
Then the magic began.
We lined the Vets up two-by-two, wheelchairs (about 17 or 18) in front, and started for the gate. As we did so, the main airport PA announced the Vets' presence and what was going on; people flocked to get a glimpse of these Heroes. At least 200 people lined the route, cheering and clapping, and thanking the Vets for their service.
When we got to the gate area, lined up on either side were active-duty members of all branches of the Service--Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard--saluting. There was a full-blown Color Guard there; when they presented the flag, the young service people snapped-to and saluted---and so did the octogenarian Veterans, every last one of them--stiffened into "Attention" and saluted the flag.
Afterwards, we sat around in the lounge waiting for our airplane to arrive. The young servicepeople were mingling with the Veterans, getting fascinating glimpses of what they did.
Let me interject: every single one of these guys has an AMAZING story. Here they were, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 years old (they lied to get in, some of them) and they were ripped from quiet lives in cities and farms and small towns and literally flung to the far reaches of the earth. One of our guys survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; others were in the Battle of the Bulge. Two were on Navy ships which collided (accidents happen all the time), one was helped out of the water by the other. Dad was in the China-Burma-India Campaign; we met a man (on our flight) who was in Kunming, China at the same time as Dad. Mr. Theriot, one of "my" guys, was in the Marines; he had been a clerk-typist, and typists were in short supply. They yanked him out of his unit and put him at a base in the Marshall Islands, typing (remember, no computers, no cell phones, no internet, no Excel spreadsheets). The rest of his unit perished on a little atoll called Iwo Jima. Mr. Gonzales told me nobody had ever thanked him for his service before. When he was mustered out, they dropped him out at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, and gave him $0.15 for a bus ride home. Every one of them was amazing, every single one. Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, life-long military or wartime only; pilots, navigators, and bombadiers on B-17's, a marine who stormed the beach at Normandy---what an amazing assortment of experiences, and every one of them, TO THE MAN, shy, retiring, "aw shucks". "We were just doing our job." "We had a job to do and we did it." "Nothing to make a big fuss over, we just did what had to be done."
These guys really didn't accomplish much---let's see: they conquered the world, defeated tyranny and evil, came home, started families, went back and fought communism in Korea and Vietnam, fought and won the Cold War, raised families, built the airports and the freeways and jet aircraft and skyscrapers and suburbs and all manner of technology, from color tv to microwaves to pacemakers--and sent man to the moon! In short, they built the America we now know. Otherwise, they were generally slackers...
Anyway, as we sat around the departure lounge, the young servicepeople paired off with a Veteran of their service. When the time came to board the aircraft, the Veterans had a full military escort to the door of the airplane.
On the flight to BWI, the Southwest Flight Attendants kept it lively asking the Vets questions like, "Ok, who's over 80? (All hands). 81? 82?" etc (the youngest was 85, the oldest, two of them, 94). The Pilots were also top-rate, narrating the trip for the Vets (some of whom hadn't flown for decades), "On your left, you can see Houston, Texas..."
When we arrived, we went straight to the hotel, the Hilton BWI Airport. Again, next time you travel for business or pleasure, consider Hilton first.
That evening, after cocktails at the bar---and it was great to see these guys interacting over a beer, having a wonderful time---we had a very nice banquet--and crashed.
The next morning, up bright and early. We breakfasted, loaded up the buses (my team was on the Blue bus, the "B" bus, a.k.a. the BEST bus!) and roared into DC, stopping at the World War II Memorial.
We laid a wreath at the Memorial, with full Color Guard, and our young Marine friend Charlie playing "Taps". Afterwards, we wandered around and had some great experiences (which you can see below).
We left WWII and toured around on the bus, passing the Capitol, the White House, and the various other memorials, arriving at the Navy Memorial. Lots of Navy guys on our trip, so this was poignant for them.
Next, we loaded back up (remember, these are octogenarians, with 17 or 18 wheelchairs. "Loading up" means rallying at the bus, getting the Vets up the steep stairs and settled in seats, while others fold and stow the wheelchairs. I became quite adept at wheelchair stowing and unloading, as well as pushing wheelchairs, being "back" or "front"--one Guardian at the top of the steps holding on, one behind to catch if the Vet falls) and headed for the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Lincoln, and Vietnam Memorial. Again, poignant moments at each. Some of our Vets were in all three conflicts: WWII, Korea, Vietnam.
We loaded up again and headed across the Potomac (sadly, the cherry blossoms had come and gone) and went to the Marine Corps Memorial. After a quick stop at the Air Force Memorial, we entered Arlington National Cemetary, and were puzzled! We stopped at the gate; one of the AHF staffers got off the bus, taking a Vet with her, and hopped into a cab. We were worried something might be wrong with him, but a cab? Turns out, he has made his arrangements to be buried at Arlington. When a husband and wife are buried there, they are buried in the same grave. His wife had died and he had not been able to make the trip to Arlington to visit her grave. Kathy had prearranged the cab, and they had a map--so he got to go, for the first time, to see his wife's grave.
After a tour of Arlington and watching the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, we returned to the hotel (exhausted but exhilarated) for more cocktails and another banquet. At the banquet, one table was set aside--set for dinner, with a candle, but with the chair pulled up. It represented all the Veterans/compadres of our Vets who did not return, but who gave their lives in the service of their country, and were there with us in spirit.
Also at the banquet, another amazing thing: we got to meet (and thank) three surviving Tuskeegee Airmen and the luminous Miss Joy (wife of the luckiest one).
The next morning, we repeated the trip in reverse--with the same result: cheering crowds, Honor Guards, the whole 9 yards.
The looks on these guys’ faces, and their stories—it was a magical weekend.
A quick word about Alamo Honor Flight from Tracy:
We purchase the other veterans airlines tickets, all the hotel rooms, all the food, buses, and other travel related expenses. We are really happy to say that 97% of all donated funds go directly to the veterans and these costs. I want to ensure you that it is very difficult to secure the funds for these flights. Although we do have folks supporting us out there........our team members are out there raising the funds needed for the success of these trips.
Now, this is Nick talking: If you'd like to sponsor Alamo Honor Flight, donations are welcomed--and needed. Corporate sponsors especially are sought, as they can really go a long way. You can get donation information here: Donate Now
This worthy organization deserves all the support we can give them.
(by the way, after a solid week of messing with picasa, photobucket, and blogger, I have officially given up on trying to get the pictures in correct order. Here they are, you should be able to figure out which go where)
Any of my Alamo Honor Flight folks, if you want the "large" photo for blowing up, etc, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org; I'll be glad to share.