Remember that saying from the 60s: “What if they gave a war, and nobody came?” Unfortunately, that’s not quite how the world works. Like most countries, the history of the United States includes numerous conflicts, and five major wars in modern history. Millions of Americans have signed up or been recruited to defend freedom around the world. While our country provides for veterans in many important ways (like medical coverage and support for education), what happens as our veterans grow older? For most, the memories of war live on inside them. They may never forget the soldiers they served with and their experiences at war. And connecting with memory is what a war memorial is all about. It’s also what Honor Flight is about!
Why Are War Memorials Important?
Memorials connect the present to the past and help people appreciate the sacrifices of those who fought, survived…..as well as those who died. They serve as “historical touchstones,” in the words of a British organization, the War Memorials Trust.
Memorials help us focus on remembrance for both individuals and the collective group that fought. They also remind us how countries fight most wars to defend their freedom (War Memorials Trust).
Memorials play an important role not just in marking history, but in our human psychology. History professor Susan Crane writes: “The reason people want that [observation of memorials] is so that they have a location for their memories, something external, outside your head”.
Crane says that when people share the same value about an event like a war, they also express their belief in a common purpose. In fancy terms, the memorial serves as externalized memory transformed into a physical object.
Our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., is home to dozens of major and minor memorials, among them the four major war memorials (World War II, Korea, Marine Corps, Vietnam). Visiting these major war memorials in Washington is a way for veterans to commemorate their military service and feel acknowledged and affirmed. The memorials may bring back painful memories, but imagine having a “curated” experience, complete with a tour, a personal guardian for companionship and assistance, and a way to connect with citizens and young service members as well.
Some Facts: How Many Veterans are we Talking About?
According to a report published by KQED, in 2019 there were 18.5 million veterans in the U.S. Veterans make up about 8% of the total adult population.
World War II vets (1939-46)
Korean War (1950-55)
Vietnam War (1961-75)
6.7 million (this is largest group)
Persian Gulf War (1990-95)
While the vast majority of veterans are male, after the Gulf War there was an influx of female enlistments. There are currently about 1.6 million female veterans.
Three states had a million veterans: California (1.6), Texas (1.5), and Florida (1.4).
In terms of ethnic / racial demographics, there are 11.6 million Black veterans, 6.1 million Hispanic veterans, and 1.6 Asian veterans (to mention the most populous groups. There are also many Native-American vets).
There are 4 million veteran with disabilities.
What Is Honor Flight?
Back in 2005, it dawned on Earl Morse, a physician’s assistant (and retired Air Force captain) working at the Veteran’s Administration in Ohio, that his older patients might never have the chance to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington.
Earl had military service in his blood. His father was a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. He understood the powerful experience of visiting the nation’s capital and standing before the impressive memorials to those who served.
How, he wondered, could he find a way to bring older veterans directly to Washington so they could experience the war memorials for themselves? In fact, many vets had never been to Washington. This could be their first—and last—visit.
At first Earl tried a small-scale approach and recruited a number of private pilots like himself to take veterans to D.C. That very first Honor Flight, back in 2005, consisted of six small private planes carrying a total of 12 veterans.
This idea led Jeff Miller, a businessman from North Carolina, to up the ante. Jeff also worried that the older generation of veterans would never get a chance to experience the World War II Memorial in D.C. (to which he was a charter member). He found a way to charter large jets to carry veterans to the World War II Memorial through an organization he called HonorAir.
The Honor Flight Network Is Born
A couple of years later, in 2007, Earl and Jeff got together and merged their organizations into the Honor Flight Network.
There are now more than 130 independent hubs that comprise the network. These hubs reach out to senior veterans (within 120 miles of the hub location) with priority given to World War II vets, Korean War survivors, and terminally ill veterans. There are, by the way, many more applicants than openings available. And as you might imagine, COVID has placed all trips on hold for now.
Which Memorials Does The Honor Flight Program Visit?
Honor Flight takes veterans to:
The numbers are impressive: 23,045 vets flew with Honor Flight in 2019
- 1,987 WWII
- 6,176 Korea
- 13,070 Vietnam
- 1,812 other
Other impressive numbers:
- 245,178 since 2005
- 18, 284 Guardians participated in 2019
- 181,501 since 2005
Needless to say, Honor Flight has brought extraordinary opportunity for reflection and closure to thousands of veterans in the U.S.
As years pass, the scars of war may fade. Memories may linger, for better or for worse. Soldiers who served our country going back four, five, and even six decades may well feel forgotten. That’s why it makes sense to offer one more tour—with honor.
Final Thoughts and Ways to Support Honor Flight
If you’re touched by the mission of Honor Flight, there are several ways you can help out. You can contribute your financial support by accessing their Donations page.
Or if you want to make a more personal contribution, consider being a Guardian.
Each Honor Flight participant must be accompanied by a guardian who makes sure the veteran’s experience is safe and enjoyable. Guardians must be able to physically assist their assigned veteran in all aspects of the travel experience (airport, airplane, hotel, memorial visits). It costs $800 to serve as a guardian (includes flight cost, hotel, meals, etc.)
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