As I turned into the airport, the setting sun played hide-and-seek with row upon row of American flags, all snapping to attention in the brisk evening breeze.
The parking lot was almost full, even though the flight wasn’t due for more than an hour. A steady stream of excited people flowed from the cars to the white tents lined up at the edge of the runway. Patriotic music echoed and amplified the celebratory mood. Red, white, and blue were the predominant colors, and almost everyone sported flags in some form.
No, it wasn’t the Fourth of July, or even Memorial Day. It was the day of the 4th Upstate SC Honor Flight, and we were all there to make sure these aging heroes had the welcome home they deserved.
Honor Flights are day-long trips to our nation’s capital specifically designed for aging veterans. The program began as an opportunity for our World War II veterans to visit their memorial in the nation’s capital. Now this program also includes Korean War veterans. There’s no charge for these war heroes to take this trip, and every plane is well packed with chaperones, nurses and doctors to ensure all have a safe and enjoyable time.
This particular flight carried more than 80 veterans from WWII and the Korean War. All the veterans were male, except for one lone Navy nurse, a veteran of WWII. Back home, they were met with a band, local dignitaries, families and a grateful community. Some walked off the plane on their own steam, still energetic after a full day. Others used canes, walkers and even wheelchairs. They wore caps, coats and medals as visual reminders of the sacrifices they and their comrades had made.
As each disembarked, his name and service record were announced, and a roar went up from the crowd. While there were smiles of acknowledgment on their seamed faces, there was something else as well: Sorrow wavered in their eyes, shadowing the smiles and waves, as they processed the memories the trip had brought to the forefront. Thoughts of buddies who hadn’t made it home, and those who had returned, but with permanent disabilities, and those who hadn’t survived long enough to take a trip like this.
I watched those former soldiers and couldn’t help but wonder about our military men and women serving now. Would future generations recognize the great sacrifices they’re making today? As a military mom myself, I certainly pray they will. And I have to say I’m optimistic. The crowd that evening was filled with people of every age. Not just those who were the veterans’ contemporaries, but children, teenagers and young couples as well. Each of them proud to be there to say thank you from a grateful heart.
To find out more about how you can help with these flights or arrange to have a veteran take a trip, contact Honor Flight. And don’t miss the opportunity to welcome one of these flights home. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.