MM Note: We thought those of you who traveled to D.C. with the inaugural Honor Flight Fayette group might be interested in reading about the experiences of another group who recently made a similar trip! Remember, Honor Flight Fayette is working on the next trip and help is needed!
They last donned their uniforms nearly 70 years ago, but the veterans appeared as proud as if they were still wearing them as they set out for their visit to the nation's capital to see the memorial in their honor.
To thunderous applause and cheers, 40 World War II veterans arrived from Detroit at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport's "A" Terminal on May 17. The group was ready to fulfill their dream of visiting the World War II Memorial, something none of them had done since its dedication in 2004.
"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 resident of Clinton Township, Mich., said he was glad for the chance to see the memorial built in part by his contributions. But to make the trip, he had to draw on his experiences from the war: early reveille and a full day.
"I started at 4 o'clock this morning," DeNardo said. "We're going go to [Arlington National Cemetery], [and] they said if time allows, they're going to drive us around."
DeNardo 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, and with 120 already having made the trip and an average of two flights a month, it seems attainable.
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.
"Logistically, it's a nightmare," Sage said. "But guess what? We're going to devote one [future] flight all to wheelchair guys."
In the end, the veterans' reactions make it easy to forget any challenges, however.
"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 in Ohio in December 2004 and has chapters in 31 states, eventually will come to an end, Sage said.
"We have what they call a 'sunset clause' in this program," he said. "Whether you like it or not, it will come to an end, because the guys are going to be passing away or get too sick to travel."
Some 1,500 to 2,000 World War II veterans die each day. The staggering numbers, and his work with World War II veterans who saw their dream of visiting the memorial slipping away, are what prompted Earl Morse, a physician's assistant and retired Air Force captain, to start Honor Flight Network.
But until takes its final toll on "The Greatest Generation," he said, Honor Flight Network will make sure as many World War II veterans as possible get to appreciate the memorial built to honor their sacrifices.