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Recognizing our veterans with flights of honor

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Courtesy/Honor Flight Northeast Indiana
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Recently retired local hub president, Dennis Covert, ready to board

Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana is a volunteer organization that celebrates our veterans with a trip to Washington DC to reflect at the memorials built in their honor.

Since its formation in 2005, the Honor Flight Network has developed 129 independent hubs throughout the country, and has transported more than 251 thousand veterans to our nation’s capital.

All honored vets travel at no cost to the veteran. Northeast Indiana’s regional hub is preparing for its 37th Honor Flight in June.

WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the importance and scope of the group’s mission, and just what goes into a day’s journey with recently retired president, Dennis Covert. (COE-vert)

You can connect and become involved at the Honor Flight Northeast Indiana website.

And WBOI's Ella Abbot will be making the upcoming flight on Wednesday, June 8th as a media representative. Be sure to watch for her first hand account of the experience on our website, wboi.org.

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Julia Meek: Dennis Covert. Welcome.

Dennis Covert: Thank you, Julia. It's a pleasure to be here. And thank you for having me.

Julia Meek: Now, your own involvement with the Honor Flight Program is firsthand on several levels. What is its core mission and purpose?

Dennis Covert: The mission of Honor Flight is to transport veterans to Washington to see the memorials that were built in their honor.

Julia Meek: That's quite an ambitious and noble goal. This is all about respect, acknowledgement, appreciation. Just how does this experience link you veterans to these honors, you do so soundly deserve?

Dennis Covert: Well, I think veterans certainly have a camaraderie with each other. And when we're traveling together, we usually have veterans from all branches of the service. It's just good to see them get together, they can share some memories from their times and service. And they all have something in common. They all signed their name to a piece of paper, pledging their life to defend this country.

Julia Meek: And now you are transporting them to our capitol to see the memorials built for each of these endeavors.

Dennis Covert: That's correct. We have a long day in Washington, but it's a good day, we get on the bus and off the bus seven times. And we see all the major memorials.

Julia Meek: Flying there. And then of course, flying home, it does sound like an amazing day, an amazing experience. Also, it sounds like what we have here is an extremely well oiled machine for enacting these Honor Flights, start to finish. What does it entail?

Dennis Covert: An honor flight entails a lot of planning, there's a lot of moving parts to this. And most people would probably not have any idea what it takes to take 189 people to Washington and back in one day, when half of them are in their 80s and 90s, and have specific medical issues or special diets that we have to deal with. But we put it all together. It's a lot of planning. It's a lot of work, but we're glad to do it.

Julia Meek: You also do everything yourself. It would be nice if you had your own plane, for example, of course you don't. So it's about organizing, renting, leasing, hiring, the list must go on and on. What kind of a template do you have by now?

Dennis Covert: Well, we charted in American Airlines Airbus A-321 that holds 189 passengers. And that is a big, big jet. We charter four buses in Washington to take us around through the course of the day. All of this has to be coordinated and put together

Julia Meek: And for every vet, there is a guardian that goes with that vet.

Dennis Covert: Correct.

Julia Meek: Would you explain that role?

Dennis Covert: Every veteran is accompanied by a guardian, which is basically an escort. We use the word Guardian. And that Guardian was responsible for the safety of that veteran from about five o'clock in the morning until about 10 o'clock that night. It's a long day, but it's a good day, and guardians are required to undergo a 90 minute guardian training program before the flight.

Julia Meek: Are you always able to find a guardian?

Dennis Covert: Yes, most guardians are family members, a son or daughter or grandson granddaughter or maybe a niece or nephew. We have occasions where we will have a veteran who does not have a family member who can accompany him and we will provide a guardian for that veteran.

Julia Meek: Now. This whole movement began in 2005 with the dedication of the World War Two Memorial in Washington, DC. And then it was determined and decided what a wonderful act it would be to transport veterans there for that.

Dennis Covert: Yes. The first Honor Flight actually started out of Springfield, Ohio, when there was a former Air Force officer who was a physician's assistant. And he was making his rounds at a VA hospital when he realized that most of the World War Two veterans would probably never get to go to Washington to see their memorial. He was a private pilot, he recruited five friends who are also private pilots. And together they flew six small planes to Washington with two World War Two veterans in each plane. And that was the first Honor Flight,

Julia Meek: (chuckles) Then obviously, we've come a long, long way. How has it expanded, broadened operations since then, would you say?

Dennis Covert: Well, since then, the Honor Flight operation has expanded to 129 Honor Flight hubs throughout the country. And as of this month, over 251,000 veterans have been transported to Washington to see their memorials.

Julia Meek: That's great. This is a non political group as well. So this is all about the honor. So in 2005, World War Two vets were literally racing the clock to access a flight. Fast forward now, Vietnam veterans are in that same age bracket, Dennis, how might you be able to expedite, increase, work your magic to get the flights going and everybody on one that wants to be on one?

Dennis Covert: Well, we had a little bit of a setback with COVID because we had to cancel several of our flights. But now we're back on track and we're flying again and typically Honor Flight Northeast Indiana did four flights a year, two spring flights, two fall flights. This year. We're doing three spring flights. We're doing at least two in the fall, possibly a third, that hasn't been determined yet. So we're trying to make up a little extra ground to catch up with what we lost in '20 and '21.

Julia Meek: Again, what a noble goal you have. It can't be that easy to just half again, production to make up for these missed flights, these missed years because of COVID. How do you logistically put that in a season's schedule?

Dennis Covert: Well, it's a challenge. I will tell you. There's a lot of work involved in putting together three flights in the spring and we're talking about 520 some people that have to be contacted individually, guardians, and veterans and a staff and everything has all these arrangements, food and shirts, and aircraft and so forth. So it is a big, big operation. And I should point out that Honor Flight Northeast Indiana and all Honor Flights are staffed entirely by volunteers. And here in Fort Wayne, there are no salaries and no expense accounts.

Julia Meek: Oh, my goodness. And how many employees approximately do you have, or helpers, right here in Fort Wayne?

Dennis Covert: We have a board of directors of about 18 people. And then we have an Honor Flight volunteer corps of 20 some people that helped beyond that. So we're in the neighborhood of about 40 people that work actively on this.

Julia Meek: How did they recruit you to be president?

Dennis Covert: I think it was kind of a natural for me because I had already been involved with honor flight for a number of years. And then I was recruited to join the board of directors. And then two years later, after joining the board, it was decided to have a vote for me and I was elected president in June 2016.

Julia Meek: Good for you, I think and hope and certainly good for the community. What kind of response are you seeing, from your perspective and from your journey through the organization?

Dennis Covert: Oh, the response, particularly the Fort Wayne community has been phenomenal. This community has really, really rallied and come out to support us. We've had several companies who have donated money and several individuals who have donated money, significant amounts, to make these flights possible. And I do have to say that an Honor Flight today costs $110,000. And we are all funded 100% by donations. So we've had tremendous community support from the media and things like public radio right here.

Julia Meek: Well, I hope everybody is proud to further your cause. I know that we are here at Public Radio. And another thing we should mention, these are handled with absolutely no expense to the veteran that is the honoree.

Dennis Covert: That's correct. The veterans go for free, yes.

Julia Meek: The guardians?

Dennis Covert: Guardians are asked to make a $400 tax deductible donations to Honor Flight. And the Guardian donations that we collect for each flight amount to about $30,000. And the flight is costing 110,000. So the balance of that is funded by donations or fundraising that we create.

Julia Meek: That's fantastic, again, commendable that a community like ours would be so supportive. It makes us all proud to live here. And speaking of our local Northeast Indiana Honor Flight, how did ours start?

Dennis Covert: Well, the Honor Flight Northeast Indiana hub got started back in '08, when a young lady named Laura Kericho wanted her world war two veteran dad to go on an Honor Flight, but she found out that the waiting list anywhere anyplace was so long that he would probably never get to go. So she met with National Honor Flight officials and decided to form her own Honor Flight hub here in Fort Wayne. And to have a hub, you have to have two things, you have to have a board of directors and you have to have money. So she recruited a board of directors of about five or six people. And on her first day of fundraising out on East State Street, she raised $12. But since then, Honor Flight Northeast Indiana has grown to where we have now transported over 2600 veterans to Washington, DC, and we just completed our 35th flight two weeks ago.

Julia Meek: Congratulations all the way around. And, and now that things are running smoothly on a national and local levels. What's the biggest challenge? Would you say?

Dennis Covert: Well, the biggest challenge is getting, getting these veterans to Washington, because time is running short for some of them, and we've lost a lot of veterans over the last few years that we would have liked to have taken. So our challenge is the timeline for life.

Julia Meek: Okay. And that's probably always going to be that way--we'd like to see a ceasefire to war for forever. Until we do, there's lots to commemorate, lots to remember. And are we pretty sure that we are safely entrenched in this organization to be able to see it going forward?

Dennis Covert: Yes, absolutely. Honor Flight is here to stay. And we have to remember that even in peacetime the military is a dangerous business, and we still need to honor those veterans who served.

Julia Meek: Amen. And thank you for that reminder. Now I am curious, Dennis, the anti war pushback that all of you returning Vietnam vets were subjected to was heartbreaking. How would you say that affected your determination to make these very Honor Flights a successful endeavor.

Dennis Covert: I think Honor Flight has really turned attitude around from what it was back in the 60s and the early 70s, coming out of the Vietnam era, and it was not uncommon for Vietnam veterans to be greeted rudely and terribly when they returned. But Honor Flight has changed that. And I think now veterans are greeted and respected. And we appreciate the recognition that they're getting now.

Julia Meek: Great. And as a Vietnam vet, as well as the past president of this organization, you can make a difference. Thank you for reporting that to us, to be sure. Now, how do you connect with vets and their causes now that you're the past president?

Dennis Covert: (chuckles) Well, I'm the past president, as of January of this year, after five and a half years, but I'm still actively involved. And I'm still an active member of the board of directors. So I'm not really any less busy now than I was before I just changed titles or changed positions for a while,

Julia Meek: Are you happy that you can stay connected, and you can keep doing what you're doing?

Dennis Covert: Yes, I'm very happy. This has been a great organization to be involved with. And I actually got involved back in 2010. So it's been over 11 years.

Julia Meek: Okay, so that proof is there. (chuckles) And we have a good indication that you're going forward with everything. Now we do get your fierce warrior spirit and your dedication to this worthy cause, Dennis. We thank You for it as well. From your heart now, what have all of these years of service to your community and your country in these ways done for you?

Dennis Covert: Well, I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish with the Honor Flight, I'm proud to be a veteran, I'm proud to be an American. And it all kind of comes together like that. So I'm glad I was able to serve this organization. And I'm glad I've been able to serve the veterans over the years that I've been involved.

Julia Meek: As we sit here in the 21st century, do you feel the relevancy that was there as you were in your own formative years, and now you are honoring those who were alongside you, those that came after you, but you're also setting some goals and some standards and some righteous ways of behaving to a whole platform of younger people. How does that make you feel?

Dennis Covert: Well, I thank you for those comments. And I do feel good. I'm encouraged a lot of times when I see that Boy Scout troops or other youth groups are out laying wreaths on Memorial Day for Wreaths Across America. And that tells me, it lets me know that veterans have not been forgotten. So I'm encouraged by seeing that. And that's part of the self satisfaction that I get out of serving,

Julia Meek: Good for you and for all veterans. And last question, Dennis, what would you like to say to everyone listening right now, especially the courageous veterans and their families as we get ready to celebrate this Memorial Day?

Dennis Covert: Well, first of all, I'd like to say that if you are a veteran or you have a family member who's a veteran who has not been on an Honor Flight, they need to sign up, and they can visit the Honor Flight Northeast Indiana website and get signed up. And I would like to thank all the veterans and all of our military families who have served our country because we wouldn't have much of a country if we didn't have those veterans to thank for this. We should be very grateful for what they've done for our country and themselves.

Julia Meek: Vietnam veteran Dennis Covert is recently retired president of Honor Flight Northeast Indiana. Dennis, thank you for sharing this wonderful story. Continue to do good work and carry the gift.

Dennis Covert: Thank you, Julia. It's my pleasure to be on your program. Thank you

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.