I just had the privilege of participating in an act of genuine patriotic appreciation: escorting nineteen World War II veterans, including two women, as they prepared to take Honor Flight from Austin, Texas to visit the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
I didn't actually make the trip. I just helped them into the airport and to the plane. Remember, WWII ended nearly 71 years ago, so most of these folks are in their nineties. Groups of Honor Flight volunteers help them unload from buses and shuttles, get situated in wheelchairs, get registered, supplied with all the necessary ID badges, through airport security, to their assigned gate for the trip, and down the ramp to the aircraft, along with all their luggage. There were also local Honor Flight Guardians, volunteers who accompanied the group on the trip, along with several family members and Emergency Medical Technicians.
Through the Honor Flight Network, a national organization with 130 'hubs' in 44 states, these veterans are accompanied from their homes to tour the WWII Memorial, which opened in 2004, and attend ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery just across the Potomac River. For many, this is their first visit. For most, it will certainly be their last.
Honor Flight has flown nearly 160-thousand veterans, mostly from WWII, but also Korean and Vietnam War vets; 21-thousand last year alone. The organization is non-profit, supported completely by personal and business charitable donations.
My dad was a career Army officer and veteran of World War II. So was my Uncle Bob. As an army brat, and living overseas for seven of my first fifteen years, I grew up sautéed in military history. My parents' car was shot full of holes in front of their quarters at Wheeler Army Airfield on December 7, 1941, and Dad was in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. It was truly heartwarming to spend time with men and women who had shared pieces of that terrible experience; to discuss the places they'd served and horrors they'd seen. As a Vietnam vet myself, there is a very genuine bond between us. I have a profound appreciation for all they'd survived.
All in all, the occasion was joyful. But then, as we marched down the main airport concourse to our gate, I nearly lost it. We were in a long parade of wheelchairs, our honored passengers wearing black 'WWII Veteran' baseball caps and carrying small American flags. We were led by a uniformed color guard and bagpiper. And at every single gate and seating area along the way, every single person was lining the concourse, applauding, cheering, taking pictures and saying, "Thanks for your service." Damn!
In all that, what may have been the most poignant; the most appropriate and the most treasured, at least for me, was the expression, "Thanks for your service." Those simple words of appreciation may be the most priceless memorial of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the horrific war that continues to this day.
When I returned from Vietnam in April 1967, I do not recall ever being thanked for my service. As most Vietnam vets will attest, there were a lot of epithets aimed our way by our countrymen, but none were welcoming or appreciative. So hearing "Thanks for your service" directed at all who wore the uniform, and especially those who had served in conflict overseas, even after all these years, was like a Beethoven symphony.
I can't wait for the next opportunity to volunteer for Honor Flight.