It’s not easy getting veterans to talk about their war service, but the guardians who accompany the World War II and Korean War veterans on their Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., have a way of getting them to open up, said Dave Anderson, a Korean War veteran and member of the board for Franklin County Honor Flight.
The Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit organization that has flown over 100,000 veterans completely free of charge to Washington, D.C., to see the national memorials honoring their military service. The network consists of 117 hubs across the country, including the Franklin County Honor Flight, which flew its first group of local veterans to D.C. in 2007.
The guardians, who are all volunteers paying their own way on these one-day trips from Missouri to D.C., are given some training on how to do this because it’s an important part of the experience, Anderson noted.
“We like for the guardians to get their stories,” he said, noting veterans are often reluctant to talk about their service with a spouse or their family.
“They tell interesting stories that should be recorded.”
Through its Veterans History Project (www.loc.gov/vets), the Library of Congress has collected and preserved over 80,000 personal accounts of American war veterans.
Guardians, who can be family members or even strangers to the veterans, are each paired with two veterans on a flight, and they begin by visiting their veterans at home long before the flight ever takes off. The goal is to interview the vets and get to know them.
Sometimes there are surprises, for the guardians and the vets, said Anderson, recalling how when his grandson, Nick, served as a guardian and was meeting with one veteran before heading over to see the other, he discovered that the two men not only lived practically in the same neighborhood, they had served in the same unit.
Yet neither knew the other was just right around the corner, said Anderson.
The first veteran gave Anderson’s grandson a photo from just after his unit had captured some German sub sailors.
“Nick treasures that picture,” Anderson remarked.
The flight and trip to D.C. is often an emotional experience for the veterans, said Anderson. For many, who are in their late 80s and early 90s, it may be the first time they’ve been thanked and the last trip of their lives.
Many veterans say, with the exception of their wedding day and the birth of their children, the trip is the best day of their life.
One of the most treasured parts of the trip is mail call, when veterans are back on their plane heading home and are given a packet of letters written by students in their hometowns.
“Some are so well written they can bring tears to your eyes,” said Anderson, admitting that on his Honor Flight, he cried reading a letter from a sixth-grade student.
“Just the way she said ‘thank you,’ the way she wrote it, I cried.”
Students put their hearts into these letters, said Anderson, and that is a true bright spot for the veterans.
“They are written from a child’s perspective . . . and they really have a lot of thought.”
‘One Last Mission’
Since 2007, the Franklin County Honor Flight has made 30 trips escorting over 1,000 area veterans to Washington, D.C. The veterans who make the trips pay nothing, stressed Anderson, not even the cost of a bottle of water or a souvenir.
Honor Flight covers all expenses, which total about $30,000 per trip, said Anderson. From the beginning, Franklin County Honor Flight has been funded through donations, and people have given generously over the years to support the cause.
“A lot of donations have come from individuals and from restaurants, who will have an Honor Flight night and donate a percentage of their sales,” said Anderson, noting the group also receives donations from groups like the Cattlemen’s Association and Modern Woodmen.
But donations overall have slowed, no doubt a result of the current economy.
“We’ve had a bad couple of years,” said Anderson. “Our funds are not what they were, but the community has always supported us, and I’m sure they will again.”
Franklin County Honor Flight is always accepting donations. People can mail checks made out to Franklin County Honor Flight to Dave Hall, State Farm Insurance, P.O. Box 60, Union, MO 63084, or donate online at www.fchonorflight.org.
Anderson pointed out that 100 percent of Honor Flight donations go to fund the veterans trips. There are no administrative costs, because everyone involved with the organization is a volunteer and all of the supplies are donated.
To help raise funds and also share what Honor Flight is all about with people who are unable to make the trips, Franklin County Honor Flight will show a movie, “Honor Flight: One Last Mission,” Sunday, Feb. 9, at 1 p.m. in the Union High School Fine Arts Theater, 1217 W. Main St., Union.
“One Last Mission” is a documentary-style film that tells “the inspiring story of one Midwestern community working to send thousands of World War II veterans to visit the national memorial built in their honor. It’s an ambitious undertaking filled with challenges and with nearly 1,000 veterans passing away each day, it is also a race against time.”
Refreshments will be for sale and helmets will be set up where people can make donations to Franklin County Honor Flight.
There is no charge to see the film.
“It’s been an honor to be affiliated and on the board for Honor Flight,” said Anderson. “It’s just something, you have this feeling that you’re glad to be doing it.
“It’s awe-inspiring for anyone involved. You don’t want to quit — I won’t quit!”