The purpose of the Honor Flight program is to take WW II, Korean and Vietnam veterans on a one-day round trip flight to visit the memorials in Washington DC. Each veteran is paired with an escort who ensures that the veterans can physically get to each of the stops and assists them with any other needs they might have for the duration of the flight and visit. This group of veterans is aging rapidly with many of them needing wheel chairs to be able to participate.
I had long wanted to participate in the Honor Flight program after I attended a homecoming event several years ago. One night when I was on the Honor Flight website, I applied to become an escort and was accepted a few weeks later. Because I didn’t specify any veteran, I was to be paired up with whomever might need someone to go with them.
When I received the trip information, I was informed that I would be going with David, who was a Korean War Marine veteran who lived in nearby Tilton, Illinois. I didn’t personally know David, so I arranged to meet him a few weeks before our departure to have lunch. We had a good lunch and talked about many things as I got to know him. David’s wife had passed away a couple of years ago and he spoke fondly of their long marriage and life together. David had retired from the post office and was long involved with his church, including serving many years as an Elder. It was a great lunch and made my anticipation of the trip even more exciting.
In late August, David and I drove to Springfield, Illinois where the chartered jet would take us and 92 other veterans and over 100 staff and escorts to Washington DC. The Honor Flight team out of Springfield are all volunteers. Many of them have been staffing these trips for years and they have the entire day planned down to the minute. All the logistics had been taken care of in advance. I simply cannot say enough about the good work this team of volunteers does. It was outstanding.
We left about 4:00 AM from Springfield and landed at Reagan National Airport a couple of hours later. We were given a police escort as the buses left Reagan for DC with the first stop being the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue. As the day progressed, we also visited the WW II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Air Force Memorial, , Air and Space Museum, drove by the Pentagon Memorial and finished up at Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard. It was a long full day, but it went off without any issues.
David, who was the youngest of several children, brought along his oldest brother George along on this trip. George was killed in action during the Battle of Tinian in the Pacific during WW II. David had a laminated news-paper clipping and picture of George that he wore throughout the trip. When we were at the WW II Memorial, I was able to take a picture of David and George in front of the Tinian maker, near the Pacific fountain.
As we concluded the trip, we headed back to Reagan National Airport for the trip home to Springfield. We boarded the plane and ended up having a 4-hour delay as we sat on the tarmac because of storm that had caused delays across the country. Originally, we were to be back about
We ended up getting back about 1:00 AM and I assumed that the crowd would not have waited and there would only be just a handful of people there. I could not have been more wrong. There were hundreds of people who waited for us as the veterans departed the plane. They were lined up as the veterans were led through a procession with bagpipes playing and American flags waving. This was one of the most emotional events I have ever participated in. I honestly was in tears as I pushed David through the procession in his wheel chair. The well wishes from the crowd was sincere as they showed their gratitude for the service these veterans gave our nation. I was particularly impressed to see several Freemasons who are members of the ANSAR Shriners out of Springfield, IL as part of the welcoming party.
I did not serve in the military and felt incredibly humbled and frankly almost not worthy of being in the presence of so many men who did serve. One member of our flight had been a POW in Vietnam and another a WW II Veteran who had received two Silver Stars. The stories I heard that day did nothing but reaffirm the deep respect and affection I have for those men and women who have served our country. I was so grateful to be chosen to serve as David’s escort for this amazing experience.
If you would like to learn more about the Honor Flight program or would consider donating to this amazing non-profit. Please visit their website at https://www.honorflight.org/. No Veteran is ever charged to go on these flights. Most areas of the country have an Honor Flight network who coordinates applications for the trips to DC. I encourage you to consider becoming an escort for an Honor Flight, I can assure there is no greater feeling of pride that I have had as American to be around these true American heroes.
WB Gregory J. Knott is the Worshipful Master of Ogden Lodge No. 754 in Ogden (IL) and a plural member of St. Joseph Lodge No. 970 (IL), Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL) and Naval Lodge No. 4 in Washington, DC