Let Your Spirit Soar
This year marks our country’s 250th Independence Day. But when’s the last time something made you feel good and hopeful about our country? With the senseless violence and crazy political climate we’ve witnessed in recent months, it’s often been hard to feel positive.
But I found an antidote! Volunteer with Honor Flight.
As JourneyCare's We Honor Veterans program coordinator, I frequently interact with other veteran-serving organizations. And there’s no other volunteer experience quite like serving as a guardian for a veteran on an Honor Flight.
Honor Flight is a national non-profit organization, dedicated to flying veterans, at no cost to them, to see the memorials built in Washington D.C. to honor their service and sacrifice. Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, then those of the Korean War. But Honor Flight believes that all veterans, regardless of combat status, deserve recognition and gratitude. And Honor Flight makes accommodations for those with impairments, on oxygen or even terminally ill.
“My” veteran, Tom, is an 84-year-old Korean War vet. He served in the Military Police during the 1950-53 conflict. On this particular Honor Flight, we carried 23 former warriors: one of the WW II vets was actually 100 years old!
The trip was emotional from start to finish. The 230+ motorcycles that escorted our bus to Milwaukee's Mitchell Field at 5 a.m. should have been a tipoff to the unique experience that lay ahead! JourneyCare’s medical equipment supplier, Advacare, donated wheelchairs for all the vets. Our favorite caterer, Tastebuds (owned by JourneyCare volunteer Cathe Keres), provided a free breakfast. Airport personnel treated the vets like royalty. The Milwaukee Fire Department blessed our plane before takeoff with a torrent from their water cannon that made rainbows.
When we exited the plane in Washington D.C., it was not just Honor Flight volunteers there, but also hundreds of other travelers who began clapping, cheering, and shaking the veterans’ hands or giving them hugs. That’s when the tears start flowing. There were so many people there to greet us, we could barely get off the plane. The veterans were in awe of the honor, respect and attention they received.
To be able to visit monuments with these men and women was a true privilege. As we read the inscriptions and dedications, it reminded them of a time long past. The stories they told were very precious and not shared with just anybody. And they protested that THEY are not the heroes: they say the heroes are those who didn’t make it home. We visited the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and several more.
Many of YOU helped to make the return trip thrilling for them! With no cell phone, e-mail, or Skype available during their military service, "mail call" was their only contact from home. Unbeknownst to our veterans, we contacted their families, government officials, school groups and others and asked for letters and cards to give them during a special mail call on the way home. The veterans were astounded when each was handed a huge envelope, stuffed with mail addressed to them. This group of veterans was blessed with more than 6,000 letters from thankful citizens – with more than 500 of them written by JourneyCare staff, volunteers and their families. The notes and drawings from youngsters were special favorites, prompting many smiles.
The welcome home ceremony was the icing on the cake. Squad cars from 17 local police departments, with sirens wailing and lights flashing, escorted the veterans back to North Chicago, where they were greeted by state senators, congressmen, mayors, police chiefs, bands, veteran motorcycle clubs and throngs of people thanking them for their service and wishing them well. By this time the veterans and guardians were thoroughly exhausted and amazed by all of the love and support given by everybody.
To me, the most inspirational thing about Honor Flight was witnessing the sincere gratitude and respect that everyone from grade-school children to senior citizens displayed. From the random airport travelers who stopped in their tracks, set down their suitcases and applauded as our veterans passed by, to the crowd of tourists and families at the Lincoln Memorial that spontaneously formed a line to shake the veterans’ hands – these things made my heart swell with pride and hope for our country. How heartwarming it is that we all appreciate those who've helped protect our way of life.
So enjoy your Independence Day – and remember to thank a veteran!
There are 130 Honor Flight hubs in 44 states. Northeastern Illinois is fortunate to have three hubs, and JourneyCare has a special partnership with Lake County Honor Flight, based in North Chicago. Learn more at www.lakecountyhonorflight.org.
Learn more about JourneyCare's We Honor Veterans program at journeycare.org/we-honor-veterans.