honor-flight-vet.jpgThey last donned uniforms nearly 70 years ago, but thanks to volunteers and donations to the Honor Flight network, World War II veterans finally get to visit the nation’s capital to see the memorial that was built in their honor.

To thunderous applause and cheers, the latest group arrived from Detroit at Washington National Airport on May 17. The 40 veterans were eager to fulfill their dream of visiting the World War II Memorial, something none of them had done since its dedication in 2004.

(Guests of Honor Flight Michigan included Army Air Force veteran Roman Zedro – Defense Department photo by Samantha L. Quigley)

“I like to think of my old buddies, which are mostly all gone by now,” said John DeNardo, an Army veteran who served from April 1943 to January 1946. “Most of them never got to see it, so I feel like I’m representing them here in a way.

The flight, tour, and meals are provided at no cost to veterans through a network of Honor Flight local chapters in 31 states , including Michigan, Alabama, Florida and Colorado.

“Time is of the essence,” said Earl Morse, Founder and President of Honor Flight, Inc.  “In another five to ten years, almost all of them (WWII Veterans) will be gone.  There is a very narrow window available to us to make their dreams of visiting their memorial, a reality.”

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs and Arlington National Cemetery statistics, in 2007 about 1,200 WWII Veterans will pass away every day.  The youngest WWII Vet is 79 years old.  Over 70 WWII Veterans on the waiting list have passed away, patiently waiting their turn.  Honor Flight presently has over 4000 WWII Veterans on their national waiting list.

The Michigan vet, DeNardo, a resident of Clinton Township, said he was glad for the chance to see the memorial  — built in part by his contributions. He said he didn’t think the visit would be too emotional, but he had a few tissues just in case. And that probably was a good thing.

“It makes us cry. It makes them cry,” said Rick Sage, who works with Honor Flight Michigan, the organization that made the trip possible. “You can’t go through this day and not be emotional.”

Honor Flight Michigan brought 414 World War II veterans to visit the memorial in 2007. Sage said the organization’s goal is 600 this year.  It all depends on funding, he said. All funds raised and donations received go into getting veterans to Washington.

“We’re all volunteers. We don’t get paid anything,” Sage said. “We’re just doing this because it’s the right thing to do for these guys.”

Even the right thing can come with challenges, though. Many World War II veterans are no longer mobile and require a wheelchair to get around. That means more of what the Honor Flight Network refers to as “guardians” to help move those who need wheelchairs. But that doesn’t discourage the volunteers.

In the end, the veterans’ reactions make it easy to forget any challenges.

“They think it’s just one of the best things they’ve ever seen,” Sage said. “Some of them get a little misty, [and] some of them don’t want to talk. It’s a very emotional time for them.”

Sadly, the national Honor Flight Network program, which began as a passion for Earl Morse, a physician’s assistant and retired Air Force captain in Ohio in December 2004, eventually will come to an end.

But until the final survivor of “The Greatest Generation” has their chance to visit their memorial, Honor Flight network will make sure as many World War II veterans as possible get to appreciate the grand monument built to honor their sacrifices.

If you would like more information about the Honor Flight, or would like to donate to help send a vet to Washington, visit www.HonorFlight.org, call (937) 521-2400, or write: Honor Flight Inc., 300 E. Auburn Ave, Springfield OH 45505.

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