I had the privilege of founding and being the only president of Hoosier Honor Flight, Inc. From our first flight on 12 November 2008 through our last on 28 April 2010, HHF took 278 WWII and Korean War veterans to Washington, DC to visit their national war memorials, Arlington National Cemetery, and other meaningful sites. Actually, many of the 141 guardians (helpers) who also traveled to DC to assist the ‘customer’ WWII and Korean War veterans were veterans themselves. HHF guardians paid either $360 or $400 each (depending on whether on a Southwest or HHF chartered flight, respectively) to work their entire trip.
While money from the guardians paid for approximately one third of our expenses, the great majority was from donations. Mike Pate of American Legion Post 18 in Bloomington graciously allowed our donations to be made payable – in accordance with national Honor Flight guidance – to the Legion in order to be tax deductible and to establish a traceable ‘paper trail’. Mike Carmin, of Carmin Parker, P.C., incorporated HHF at his own expense. Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Steve Galvin was ‘co-CEO’ from the second flight forward. Without Steve HHF might well have faltered. Post 18, VFW Post 604, and other military service organizations and businesses from the area supported HHF with their efforts and financial donations – but the most touching donations were from individuals: buddies of those who did not come home, widows, and regular people who wanted to show gratitude for what these veterans had done.
The above photo is of the first HHF upon arrival at the National World War II Memorial. Most of the customer veterans on this flight are gone now, as are over 90% of the sixteen million United States WWII veterans. But we were able to express our gratitude to these gentlemen.
All Honor Flights are totally free to the customer veterans. All official Honor Flight ‘hubs’ are only recognized by the national Honor Flight organization after meeting stringent standards for safety, financial accountability, and dedication. Hoosier Honor Flight ceased operations only after all applicants were flown. I made the decision to open the program to Korean War veterans after all our WWII applicants had been taken or were about to be taken on our last flight. I did not want any wasted seats on a chartered 737.
Donors provided well over $300,000 to Hoosier Honor Flight. Polly and I gave the remaining balance of all Hoosier Honor Flight funds – including memorial donations in Sarah’s name – to help start the Greater Lafayette Honor Flight hub. Pam Mow, President of the Indiana Chapter of the Gold Star Mothers, accepts the check. How touchingly appropriate that those who have lost a child for the sake of the United States should give even more by thanking surviving wartime veterans.
How better to close this overall description than with the below image taken by Mike Stanley of the Spencer Evening World –
Returning Home, 28 April 2010.
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Below is a description of the last Hoosier Honor Flight.
Everything worked out in the end. The fourth and last Hoosier Honor Flight took off late – something about the Miami Air International co-pilot’s certification to land in Reagan National had to be approved at the last minute, and the Transportation Security Agency’s office in DC did not open until 0700 – but by 0720 on 28 April we were moving away from the Monroe County Airport terminal in our chartered Boeing 737. Every veteran, every guardian, and all three media folks had made it on board. Bill Bissey finally got to go as a guardian, after giving his seat to the grandson of a vet on HHF2 and having a heart attack right before HHF3. Representative (and RN) Peggy Welch was finally able to go again, juggling her schedule just for the Bloomington vets. One hundred and sixty-five people. (Of our hundreds of veterans and guardians assigned to all four flights, none ever failed to show up.)
The Indiana University Army ROTC color guard and other cadets saluted our veterans as we taxied for take-off. The pilot made up time on the way out, taking only an hour and 15 minutes. Two Reagan National fire trucks formed an arch of water with their high pressure hoses for our airplane on the way to our gate. Major General Jones from Andrews Air Force Base spoke to our veterans as our wheelchairs were brought up from the cargo hold.
One of our veterans collapsed a short way into the airport. We found out later in the day that he would be fine, but he was the center of attention for guardian Jim Buher [caught the veteran on the way down, preventing injury], the veteran’s son [his designated guardian for the flight], guardian Angela Parker [former policewoman, EMT, and full partner with Andrews, Harrell, Mann, Carmin, & Parker], and guardians Beverly Terry, Rose Ewing, and Carol Faulkner [Registered Nurses all]. Beverly initiated assisted breathing and Rose chest compressions until the veteran revived. Angela and the veteran’s son stayed with him at Reagan as the airport emergency medical team took over. Both were prepared to stay in DC with the veteran should it prove necessary.
Most of our veterans did not realize what had happened at Reagan as they boarded our three chartered tour buses for the ride to the World War II Memorial. Judge Steve Galvin commanded Able bus, filled with WWII veterans. Mike Pate had Baker, with Korean War veterans. I assigned myself to “tail end Charlie” [ask a WWII veteran what that means], half-and-half. Former Senator Bob Dole sent his apologies before our visit, but the Memorial itself was stunning in its solemn beauty. I finally found the “Kilroy was here” marking – a memorial to ubiquitous 1940s American whimsy within a memorial to American determination, sacrifice, and ultimate victory.
I believe ours was the first chartered flight from a community airport directly into Reagan National Airport since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The staffs of Hoosier Honor Flight, Transportation Security Agency, Miami Air International, Reagan National Airport, and Senator Lugar’s Washington, DC office worked for months to make it happen. Now it paid off. After a relaxed one hour plus at the WWII Memorial, we had plenty of time for our veterans at the Lincoln Memorial. Most walked or were pushed in wheelchairs from Lincoln to visit the Vietnam War and Korean War memorials. Some sat in the sun on the Lincoln steps and looked at the Washington, DC Mall. I wondered what they were seeing. I suspect it was a lot more than beautiful buildings and tourists.
Hoosier Honor Flight was the first Honor Flight Network hub in the nation to take Korean War veterans without restriction. While WWII veterans continue to rightfully be the focus of the national Honor Flight program, our applications from local WWII veterans had declined to the point that we could open the last flight to veterans of the Korean War. [We took two Korean War veterans on earlier flights under special circumstances: one had pancreatic cancer and the other was expected to loose his sight within six months.] In fact, no local WWII or Korean War veteran who submitted an application and was physically able to go was left behind. We even took some Indiana veterans from the national Honor Flight Network waiting list.
Our next “drive-by” was the Marine Corps Memorial, where we exchanged greetings with Wounded Warriors who were biking DC. They were eating a quick lunch in the park-like area surrounding the Iwo Jima flag-raising monument. Many were amputees. All were physically challenged in some way due to combat wounds. We then rode to Arlington National Cemetery to board our chartered Tourmobile to the Tomb of the Unknowns to watch the changing of the guard.
We had time to stop at the Air Force Memorial overlooking Washington, Arlington, and the Pentagon. Our driver then made a special effort to drive by the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial on our way back to Reagan. Cell phones had spoiled the surprise but saved us from worry – at Reagan we were rejoined by Angela, the veteran who had collapsed, and his son. Had they tragically missed out on this trip of a lifetime? Heck, no! Ms. Jacqueline Key, Continental Air manager at Reagan, had seen their plight and personally driven all three to every one of the places we had visited! Two separate, “V.I. P.” security screening lines were set up for us at Reagan. I don’t think any of our veterans noticed the long line of other travelers waiting to be screened extending half way down the main Reagan terminal – not one of whom complained a bit about our special treatment.
Our plane did not wait in line to take off – a first for me out of Reagan. I’m sure the tower staff intentionally placed us at the front of the line. As we quickly became airborne and turned toward the west, the pilot intentionally banked and turned so our veterans could look out their windows at the same National Mall, Arlington National Cemetery, and Pentagon they had just seen from the ground.
As the airplane’s sound system played 1940s popular music in the background, we conducted a surprise “mail call”. Guardian Cheryl Holladay [yet another RN!], ably assisted by many helpers, had obtained letters from school children across southern Indiana for our veterans. She even allowed a few “thank you for your service” letters from politicians. Mike Pate and I called out the veterans names, they “sounded off”, and their mail was passed back to them just as it had been over 65 years before.
We returned to Monroe County Airport less than twelve hours after our departure to see a welcoming crowd of over three hundred. There were friends and relatives, Southern Indiana Pipes & Drums bagpipers, IU Army ROTC color guard, ROTC cadre in dress blues, and many cadets to help with crowd control and to assist the disabled veterans from the plane.
Did I mention there were two fire trucks forming an arch of water with their high pressure hoses over our plane as we taxied to the Monroe County Airport terminal? I overheard one veteran remark that our airplane must have been very dirty to require two washings.
I know of three new Honor Flight hubs that may be established in southern Indiana as a result of the success of Hoosier Honor Flight. These will be an ongoing tribute to the WWII and Korean War veterans and to the many volunteers and donors who have used the Honor Flight concept to express our thanks to these heroes.
The veteran who fainted at Reagan, the last Hoosier Honor Flight, and hope for the future – everything worked out in the end.