This past Tuesday, Nov. 8, I, along with six other members of the Gardner American Legion and Sons of the American Legion had the unique experience and privilege of escorting 54 veterans to see their memorials in Washington D.C. We traveled as escorts on an Honor Flight. This organization is tasked with transporting America’s veterans to Washington to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices. WWII veterans are leaving us at a rate of over 1,200 per day so priority is given to them, but Honor Flights also cater to other veterans.
Honor Flight is supported entirely by donations so there is no cost to the veterans.
Forty-five escorts earned the privilege of escorting these heroes on what would be our longest day. We arrived at Kansas City International Airport bright and early at 4 a.m. wearing baby blue guardian T-shirts. We did not know what to expect, other than what we had been told at a prior luncheon and meet-and-greet.
Volunteers from the Daughters of the American Revolution were on hand to send us off on what turned out to be a remarkable experience. Searching for name tags, we all found our designated veterans and boarded a U.S. Airways charter flight to Washington. Water canons, a USO band and dozens of well- wishers greeted us at Reagan National Airport. The organizers of Honor Flight had told us that there would be quite a few surprises along the way. With a police escort for the two buses, we were off to the WWII memorial.
These men and women had never seen the memorial, so we spent a few hours looking, reading, taking pictures, and talking to active military that had been assigned to the memorial that day. There were other Honor Flight veterans from other parts of the country there as well. Our flight consisted of Missouri and Kansas veterans so dignitaries from both sides of the border began to show up for photo ops and a few short speeches. Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill from Missouri were there and out of the corner of my eye, was Elizabeth Dole. This all took place near the entrance to the memorial on a beautiful sunny 70 degree day. The topper for all the veterans and guardians was the arrival of former Sen. Bob Dole. He sat on a stool for 45 minutes talking to any and every veteran in attendance. His health has prevented him from taking part in veteran events of late, but the perfect weather and a group from Kansas brought out smiles from all the guys.
Later, we boarded the buses for a quick DC tour and a stops at the Lincoln, Korean, and Vietnam memorials before heading off to what would be the next awe-inspiring, and solemn experience. If you haven’t seen the Tomb of the Unknown Solider or the changing of the guard, it’s a must see. It had been a few years for me but it still seemed like a new experience. Two of our veterans were selected to have the honor of placing a wreath at the tomb. We could have stayed at Arlington National Cemetery for hours but we re-boarded the bus for the next stop. The Air Force Memorial offers some of the best views of the city and the Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima) at sunset offered some of the best pictures.
Poignant comments were heard from one veteran at the Korean Memorial while he was observing the statues, “Their eyes look so fatigued and tired.” Another veteran at the Vietnam Wall said “so many names, so many names.”
What I’ll remember most is the man and his son who were visiting the WWII Memorial. The man asked my veteran if he had served in the war, and with a yes the gentleman shook his hand and said “thank you.” His son, around the age of ten and without a word from his dad did the same thing. These occurrences happened over and over throughout the day. That seemed to mean more to these veterans than any memorial could. That alone made their long day worth it.
Finally, some 12 hours after arriving at KCI, we headed back to Washington’s airport for our return flight. More bands, the Patriot Guard, Legion Riders, well-wishers and flags greeted us there. The long day, tours, walking, dignitaries, bathroom breaks, and more bathroom breaks made for many smiles, quite a few laughs, and a few tears along the way. Boarding the three-hour flight back home gave me time to reflect some on what it meant to be on a trip like this.
My assigned veteran for the day was Paul Small, a Kansas veteran who served in the Navy on a troop carrier in the Pacific. We had a bond that dawned on me during that flight home. His son would have been about 62 now but passed away over a decade ago. That was Paul’s only son. My dad served in Europe during WWII but died over a quarter century ago never having seen the memorials. I know we both would have loved to share this experience with them but maybe it was right that we got to share this day together.
Something to think about over the holidays might be to listen. If you know a WWII veteran or have a relative who served, have them share their story with you. Listen. At over 1,200 a day it won’t be much longer until we only remember World War II with books and documentaries. If you have the chance, hearing from the hero himself will last much longer. Thanks, Paul.
If you have the inclination this holiday seasons consider a donation to Honor Flight of Kansas City. The website is www.honorflight.org. The satisfaction rate of the veterans is 100 percent guaranteed. I’ll leave you with one last thought. It’s a quote from Will Rodgers and the motto of Honor Flight. It’s also printed on the back of all guardian shirts. “We can’t all be heroes. Some of us get to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.” I never felt so proud wearing baby blue. Thanks for your service!
Claud Hobby is a member of the Sons of the America Legion. He lives in Gardner.
Gardner residents serve as Honor Flight escorts