Behind every mission of Franklin County Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., there are many volunteers — called Guardians — and others who devote their time and efforts to the military veterans. The latest flight Wednesday included 33 veterans and 21 Guardians, who assist and care for the needs of the former military personnel. Several of the Guardians had two veterans to oversee.
The Guardians pay their own way, $500 a trip. Some of them push wheelchairs for veterans unable to walk very far. There are male and female Guardians, young and elderly. Before the trip they are briefed and even during the trips they have short meetings with the leaders. Before the trip they interview the veterans they will escort. Honor Flight has its own wheelchairs and they have to be loaded and unloaded on the bus during the visits to the memorials. The personal care they give during the trip compares with what a paid caregiver would provide.
To and from the airport in St. Louis, Mid-American Coaches (Dennis and Roger Jones) provides free of charge a bus, operated by two drivers who also are volunteers. The volunteer drivers for the latest trip were John Sommers and Cathy Brautigam. Highway Patrol troopers escort the veterans to and from the airport. Troopers Josh Summers and Matt Augrisanigin handled the escort duties on the latest flight. Coming back from the airport there were volunteers on motorcycles who led the “parade” into Washington, along with the Highway Patrol. The motorcyclists are members of Patriot Club and Legion Riders, plus others. The trip from the airport was in the early morning hours, arriving back to the garage about 2 a.m. Thursday.
At the airport before takeoff, volunteers served a light breakfast and the St. Louis USO provided light snacks, coffee and water. When the Southwest plane landed at Baltimore, fire trucks gave a water spray salute as the aircraft approached the gate. The veterans and the Guardians were greeted by applause by people at the gate when they entered the terminal.
At the memorials, the veterans were thanked by many people who also were visiting the monuments. The young girls especially were kind to the veterans, with some of them giving hugs and posing for pictures with the veterans. At every stop, “thank yous” and handshakes were offered to the veterans. Applause was given when people recognized it was a group of veterans.
At the St. Louis airport, even though it was 11 p.m. when the veterans returned, a large crowd of relatives and friends of the veterans applauded as each veteran and his Guardian were introduced as they walked by volunteers with flags. A Marine honor guard also greeted the veterans, saluted each veteran as they walked through the gate. The Marines also handed out photos taken of the veterans at the World War II memorial earlier in the day. Judge Judy Draper, who was born in Korea, gave a talk and thanked the veterans for saving the country where she was born. Volunteer Dave Anderson was the master of ceremonies for the welcome home program. Rosalie McGaugh, a volunteer, assisted in handling the many details of the trip.
The veterans had never been treated like this before. As one veteran said, “It was a very humbling experience.” The majority of the veterans on the latest trip served during the Korean War.
Honor Flight has been able to provide these trips through donations and organizations that hold fund-raising events. The founders and leaders — Jim Tayon, Dave Hall and Larry Davis — all volunteers, will be the first to tell you they couldn’t do it without the many other volunteers, especially the Guardians, who truly are unsung heroes.
They deserve a salute!