WBOI joins Honor Flight as it flies vets to DC for a day of reminiscing and appreciation
Honor Flight Northeast Indiana is a non-profit that gives veterans from around the area the opportunity to visit memorials in their honor in D.C. for free.
Honor Flight began back in the early 2000s when a nurse practitioner for the Department of Veteran Affairs in Springfield, Ohio realized that many veterans never get to see the war memorials built in their honor.
Honor Flight Northeast Indiana President Cathy Berkshire recounted the tale;
“He got three of his pilot friends and four of them flew private planes to DC and each one had two veterans and they took them to see their memorials. And that’s how Honor Flight started.”
Today there are 129 hubs throughout the continental United States, including Alaska, with another being discussed for Hawaii.
Northeast Indiana’s first flight was in May of 2009. It only carried about 25 veterans and used one tour bus when they got to DC.
By contrast, on the June 8th flight, there are 84 veterans and they charter four large tour buses when they touch down in DC. For each vet, there’s also a guardian tasked with accompanying them throughout the day. Typically, guardians are family or friends of the veteran, but sometimes they’re Honor Flight volunteers.
“We charter direct through American Airlines and we have food service vendors that deliver food to the memorials for lunch and for dinner and, yeah, we just make it a day,” Berkshire said.
Veterans arrive at the Air National Guard's 122nd Fighter Wing between 4 and 5 a.m. for breakfast and a welcome program. After breakfast, they begin boarding the plane, passing under an American flag hoisted between the extended ladders of two fire trucks.
As they board the plane, veterans and guardians are greeted by the 4th District American Legion Riders, who hold more flags. Inside, the plane is covered in patriotic decorations, the flight attendants wear red, white and blue glasses, headbands and other garb.
The flight lasts a little over an hour and then, once in DC, everywhere the group of veterans go, they’re greeted with applause.
The first stop is the World War II Memorial. This Honor Flight has one veteran from the Second World War, Ralph Lybarger. Lybarger served in the South Pacific at a supply outfit for the Marines. His job was shoe repair.
“I joined the Marines to fight, you know," he said. "Never fired a shot.”
This was Lybarger’s first time at the memorial.
“I think it’s wonderful that they, everybody appreciates,” he said.
Lybarger said he thought about going on Honor Flight for a long time, but felt there were people who deserved it more than him. A few months ago, his brother called him and asked if he’d like to go.
“But I’m glad that I got to go," Lybarger said. "I appreciate everything they’ve been doing. Been a great experience.”
Ahead on the day’s itinerary, the buses stop for lunch at the National Mall, giving vets the chance to eat and walk around several memorials, including to the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
Charlie Ewart is on the flight with his son. His hat says Cold War veteran, but Ewart also served at the end of the Korean War, which is the memorial he’s touring over the lunch break.
Ewart said by the time he made it over to Korea, all the fighting was over. But something incredible happened to him on his first night there.
“Fella next to me, bumped me, he said ‘hey, that guy’s got the same name you got,'" Ewart said. "It was my brother. We hadn’t seen each other in about a year and a half, so.”
As Ewart was arriving, his brother was leaving, but the chance encounter gave them the opportunity to spend an evening together.
Ewart became emotional as he recounted the story, something that’s not unusual for veterans during this trip. Just like Lybarger, this was the first time Ewart’s been to the nation’s capital and seen the memorials in his honor.
“I didn’t realize this was all like this, so, really means a lot to me,” he said.
Before they pack back into the bus after lunch, the veterans meet on the Mall where the Marine Corps Silent Drill platoon performed. Afterwards, they stop to shake hands and thank the veterans for their service.
The day hits a few snags when there’s no parking at one memorial and, at another, a veteran gets overwhelmed by the heat and has to be taken away in an ambulance.
It means cutting the visit to the Military Women’s Memorial short, but there Honor Flight has a surprise planned for the four female veterans on this flight. The women are honored inside the memorial with a reading of their service profile and a certificate from the memorial.
One of the women is Carolyn Gunder, who served in the Navy. Gunder said she was surprised by the honor.
“Thought I’d just come in to look at the memorial, didn’t know anything about this," she said. "Was surprised and honored.”
Gunder said nowadays more women are stepping up to serve their country and going to war. She said they only started letting women on ships just before she got out.
“It’s amazing that they’re even honoring women because sometimes we get sort of forgotten,” Gunder said.
After the Military Women’s Memorial, the buses move up the hill into Arlington Cemetery where veterans watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Honor Flight and sponsor Ruoff Mortgage representatives also partake in the wreath laying ceremony.
From there it’s a brief dinner at the Air Force Memorial before it’s back to Reagan National Airport in hopes of beating out a storm on the way back to Fort Wayne.
No luck, there, though, as the plane sees about an hour of delay. The veterans and guardians make the most of it though, engaging in sing-a-longs and playing music over the plane’s intercom system.
Once they’re in the air, there’s one last honor for veterans before they touch down at the Fort Wayne airport; Mail Call.
Each veteran receives a package, varying in size and contents, filled with letters, cards, drawings and sometimes even candy from family, friends and community members expressing gratitude for their service.
Once back home in Indiana, the veterans deboard the plane where Honor Flight has had pictures from the day printed and waiting for them, along with other gifts, including a handmade patriotic pillow for each veteran.
Past security, family members wait for their loved ones with signs welcoming them home, following a day full of memories, emotions and honor for their service.