This week, I had the privilege of accompanying the 17th Honor Flight from our region to Washington D.C. The Central Valley Honor Flight is part of a national effort to give veterans of military service an opportunity to see the monuments and memorials erected in their honor in our nation’s capital. While our group was in Washington, we ran into other Honor Flight groups from Oklahoma and Tennessee.
We had 65 veterans from the ages of 68 to 96 on our flight. Each veteran is accompanied by a guardian who stays with and assists their veteran. Additionally, there are support/logistics volunteers plus safety personnel, including three nurses and an M.D. There were also six members of the media on this flight, including me, to cover the trip and experiences of the veterans.
My greatest hope in writing this blog post is to encourage people to sign up for a trip if they are a veteran who served in a war from WWII to Vietnam. The older veterans have priority, and we had folks from the full range on our trip. People can also apply to be a guardian or a volunteer. The entire program runs off of donations and volunteers, so please go to the website if you can help with time or treasure. I’ve included our trip’s itinerary below so you can see what the trip entails. I’m not going to recount it step by step because I’d rather try to explain how it seemed to impact the veterans and how it impacted me.
It’s amazing what we did in two-and-a-half days. It’s even more amazing since our primary group was people who are relatively elderly. But then again, they’re veterans. Getting up early doesn’t faze them. They don’t complain. I never heard one person say, “I’m tired.” I’ve taken many bus tours of people to see downtowns in northern and southern California, and it is a regular occurrence to have everyone complain about having to be at the bus at 7:30 a.m. for a three-and-a-half hour bus ride. They’ll sit with their hoodies covering their faces and ear buds in so they don’t have to talk to anyone else. What a contrast! Remember that when you look at the itinerary, the 6:30 a.m. breakfast is at 3:30 a.m. Fresno time.
The other thing that really struck me about this group was how upbeat they are. I can’t really remember a more fun group. They razzed each other, they laughed, they made friends all around. I think about what some of them have been through, things like having their ship sunk off Iwo Jima, and having two-thirds of their crew perish and ending up on the shore of the island to be shot at by Japanese soldiers. And yet, they were far more positive than any other group I’ve travelled with.
They were proud of their service to their country but they didn’t brag or boast. They always answered my questions very politely. I heard several of them say, “I don’t know why people complain about our country so much.” This was sincere. I didn’t get a sense they thought everything was perfect, but they start from a place of loving our country, in spite of our problems. They don’t wait until everything is perfect before they’ll love it.
I was very touched as random people throughout the trip stopped to applaud the veterans as we moved around the city, many shouting, “Thank you for your service,” or quietly shaking their hands. I could tell it meant a lot to the veterans, and the rest of us, too. In the Smithsonian, a group on the second floor balcony saw the Honor Flight members in the lobby. They applauded, and it spread throughout the building. It was very genuine and sincere. It never had a tinge of false patriotism, like politics often does.
The most emotional moments came on the flight home. About an hour before landing back in Fresno, an announcement came over the plane’s intercom: “Mail Call!” The volunteers jumped into the aisle to create a chain as names were called and envelopes delivered to each veteran. They were filled with cards and letters from family members and friends, but most touchingly from elementary school students, addressed to each veteran. Watching a tough World War II veteran with tears streaming down his cheeks while reading a note written in pencil, with a picture of the child holding the soldier’s hand, drawn in crayon, is maybe one of the most touching scenes I’ve ever witnessed.
Then there is the big finale. The veterans walk or are pushed in their wheel chairs through dozens of sailors. As they enter the lobby of the airport, hundreds of people start cheering and music begins playing. The parade of veterans continues through the welcoming throng. There are many handshakes, smiles, and even more tears. Come out to the next Honor Flight Welcome Home party in April—there is no way my description or video can do it justice.
I really have to thank everyone who is involved with putting this together and who contributes to the effort of sending these brave people on this once-in-a-lifetime rip. I am grateful that Bruce Batti and Sarah Pruner from the Jeffrey Scott Agency asked FresYes.com to come on the trip, and I’m eternally grateful to my friend Jason Farris for asking me to go in his place when his schedule couldn’t allow it (I hope you do get to go on one, Jason!). The logistics of this whole trip are incredible. They have a 100% safety record, which only comes from great planning, training, and dedication. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that people who can deploy a fleet of a battalion can pull off a three-day trip, but as an old event planner, I have to say I was in awe.
Interviews and moments from Central Valley Honor Flight #17
Please watch some of my clumsily taken, handheld iPhone videos and interviews. And please contribute to this effort if you can. Consider covering the cost of one veteran for $1,500. Whatever you can give is used wisely—I’ve seen it firsthand.
The Central Valley Honor Flight Veterans and their guardians watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
An interview with World War II veteran Dodie Brennan. She was a member of the WAVEs (the Women’s Reserve, aka Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). We’re at the WWII Memorial.
Returning home to Fresno to be greeted by hundreds of fans.
Central Valley Honor Flight #17 Itinerary
5:30 a.m. Check-in at Fresno Air Terminal (a.k.a. Fresno-Yosemite International)
8:15 a.m. Flight to Washington D.C.
5:00 p.m. Arrive Baltimore-Washington Airport
6:00 p.m. Dinner at American Legion Post 276
8:00 p.m. Hotel Check-in
6:30 a.m. Breakfast
7:30 a.m. Busses Depart
8:00 a.m. Tour US Marine Memorial (Iwo Jima Statue)
9:00 a.m. World War Two Memorial
10:45 a.m. Smithsonian Museum of American History
Lunch- Hosted by Congressman Costa
1:00 p.m. US Navy Memorial with Navy Drill Team
2:30 p.m. Korean War Memorial
3:30 p.m. Marine Corps Drill Team at Lincoln Memorial
4:30 p.m. Vietnam War Memorial
6:00 p.m. Dinner/Banquet
6:00 a.m. Breakfast
7:00 a.m. Hotel Check-out
8:00 a.m. Arlington National Cemetery
9:00 a.m. Changing of the Guard at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
10:00 a.m. Women’s Military Museum
11:00 a.m. Air Force Memorial
12:00 p.m. Lunch
2:00 p.m. Depart for Fresno
6:30 p.m. Arrive in Fresno
7:00 p.m. Heroes Welcome Home Celebration