Recently I had the honor of participating in an Honor Flight and I would love to share my experiences in the hopes that others choose to volunteer their time and efforts. I volunteered because I was never able to say “Thank you” to my Grandfather for his service in WWII. My wife volunteered for the same reason; her Grandfather was a Silver Star recipient.
So what is an Honor Flight? Basically, you volunteer to chaperone an older (typically elderly) Veteran around the Washington, D.C. area to see the national monuments. You will donate $300 towards your ticket and meals for the day and spend a very long Saturday pushing a wheelchair.
Still with me?
Now why would anyone want to do this? $300 will go a long way towards the next shiny doo-dad and we all know the rareness of a Saturday.
A typical Honor Flight has you arriving at the airport at 4am and returning around 9pm. In our case, we were weather delayed and our day was 21 hours long. You arrive to a good amount of fan fare and you realize just how large, organized, and important this day will be. Teams are divided into buses and each bus has a few medical professionals that are available in the event anything medical occurs during the day.
The Vets stream in from hotels or local nursing homes. Lots of white hair and confusion for the first few minutes. You walk around and find the Vet you’re assigned to chaperone that day and awkwardly start a conversation — everyone has a ton of questions.
Eventually we make our way to the buses and help those that can’t walk onto the bus via chair lifts. Some of us are in charge of folding/stowing the wheelchairs, or handling snacks, or a myriad of other tasks. Today is a day of love, action, and happy exhaustion.
We arrive in Baltimore and unload the plane. We walked toward the gate and all you can hear is cheering. There are uniformed military personnel lining the path saluting and shaking hands. Folks are clapping and cheering and yelling as far as you can see. We walk the line slowly so that the Vets can bask in the love. Many of these men and women were never thanked for their service, and/or have dealt with the nightmares of warfare for 70+ years. This is their time to be overwhelmingly recognized as heroes.
We walk towards the buses from the gate and along the entire path, along each gate, along each restaurant, along each newsstand, folks are clapping, cheering, crying and running up to shake hands. These are just regular folks waiting for their planes. The emotion is raw and very real. The gratitude is flowing out and it’s hard to even make your way through the concourse.
We get to the buses and make our way via police escort through the crazy streets of Baltimore on the way to Washington. Our first stop is Arlington National Cemetery and we are just in time for the Changing of the Guard ceremony. We line up wheelchairs in the shade and stand in sweaty awe of the pageantry.
I had the opportunity to take a lady in her 90's over to Audie Murphy’s grave. Along the path a young uniformed lady knelt down and expressed her thanks to this now elderly Veteran. The elder said “I looked like you once”. The younger lady retorted “I’ll look like you one day”. She parted and the three of us had something very large in our eyes.
Fast forward the entire 21 hour day: We made our way to the Lincoln, WWII, Vietnam, Korean, Navy, Marine, Air Force and Women’s Memorials. Many ooh’s-aah’s and silent remembrances shared via wet eyes. Men and women who were once young, virile, pissed off, scared and scarred; looking backwards while facing the edge of life once again.
We arrive back home in Columbus and unload the plane — it’s now nearly midnight; we’re a couple hours late. We all leave together to head back towards the parking lot.
We are greeted with a huge line of military folks from every branch, some dressed up in bygone eras, along with the friends and family of all the Vets. Flags are waving, bagpipers are playing, everyone is yelling and cheering. Each Vet’s name is read as they are introduced to the crowd and the cheering is renewed. Folks are crying and smiling and shaking hands and hugging everywhere.
They’re welcomed home with a hero’s welcome and everyone slowly leaves with their legs tired, friends made, and hearts filled.
I highly recommend volunteering for an Honor Flight. You will take away far, far more than what you will put in. It’s a very humbling and uplifting experience. I will be volunteering for a very long time to come.
Originally published at blog.matt-darby.com.