By Ensign David Tarasi, Navy Reserve NAVINFO, Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet Public Affairs
AUSTIN, Texas (NNS) -- Twenty World War II Veterans who served in a myriad of theaters including: Guam and Burma to North Africa and the Battle of the Bulge, were escorted by volunteers from Honor Flight Austin May 29 as they set off for Washington, D.C., on what many have called "the trip of a lifetime."
Founded in Dayton, Ohio, in 2006 and funded entirely through donations, Honor Flight's mission is to "honor our veterans for their service and sacrifices," said Volunteer Coordinator John Spahr, past state commander & state legislative chairman with the Department of Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars. "It's a phenomenal program and I would encourage everybody to get involved with us, one way or another."
The non-profit organization, originally composed of six privately owned planes carrying 12 veterans, has grown to more than 150 hubs carrying thousands of veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam from across the United States to Washington, D.C., at no cost, to stand before the very monuments memorializing their honorable service to the country. The two-day trip offers veterans the chance to step back in time and celebrate the memory of the service and sacrifice made alongside their comrades, many of whom did not make it home.
Partnered with Southwest Airlines, and with the aid of wheelchairs donated by St. David's Hospital, Honor Flight Austin "Guardians" enthusiastically gathered early May 29 at Bergstrom International Airport.
Eagerly awaiting the arrival of their veterans, several Guardians reflected upon the many wonderful experiences they have shared while working with Honor Flight. "It is just an incredible experience to hear the stories that these folks tell," said retired Cmdr. Chuck Trahan, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and submariner. "It's the only thing I take off work for."
Upon arrival to the airport, each Guardian greeted and personally escorted their assigned veteran through Honor Flight check-in, where they were given matching World War II caps and Honor Flight Austin shirts.
Once checked-in, each pair proceeded through airport security and was brought to a staging area where they were lined-up for a celebratory procession through the main terminal. The veterans were then presented two-by-two before roaring applause and boundless cheers from travelers looking on.
Once at their departure gate, the colors were presented and "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Amazing Grace" were played by the ceremoniously dressed pipers.
For many it was an overwhelming experience.
"I couldn't believe the going away that we got right here in Austin," said Herb Dickehut Jr., a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. "I mean, that would bring tears to your eyes."
Once on the ground in Washington, D.C., local Guardians, including uniformed Marines, greeted the flight, welcoming the honored guests.
The veterans began their 14 hour day with a police escort ushering them to each of the monuments they were scheduled to visit, including: The National World War II Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery as well as each service branch memorial.
After completing their mission once again, these service members of the "Greatest Generation" boarded their flight home with a renewed sense of pride.
While aboard, each veteran was presented with "mail call" letters from family and friends to read on the flight home, a special high-point of the experience not revealed to the traveling veteran throughout the trip.
"It means so much to be able to give back to these warriors," said Southwest Airlines First Officer Alan Roy, who's father served with the 82nd Airborne, 376th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion in Messina, Sicily. "These men and women paid with a lot of blood, sweat and tears and for us to be able to give this to them is just fantastic."
As Roy's Boeing 737 approached the terminal at Austin Bergstrom International it was showered by twin emergency vehicle water cannons forming an arch from wingtip to wingtip in commemoration of the special passengers aboard. As the flight came to a stop at the gate a majestic rainbow broke through the clouds welcoming back those who gave so much in the name of liberty.
With as many as 640 World War II veterans dying every day, Honor Flight Austin staff and sponsors willingly accept the challenge of doing whatever they can to grant every veteran the opportunity to participate.
"It is an opportunity for an appreciative family to give back to the veterans and to let them know how much we are thankful for what they have done," said Kevin Kennedy, the proud son of a World War II veteran and whose family generously donated the balance of the trip in its entirety. "There is a lot of healing in these trips for veterans who have kept their experiences internalized but are now able to see how grateful the nation truly is."
June 5, the Honor Flight Austin will conclude their spring schedule with a "Purple Heart Flight," sending service members who were awarded the Purple Heart medal from World War II, Korea and Vietnam to the nation's capital.