Spending Time with These Veterans Changed My Life Forever

One woman’s inspiring journey to volunteering with veterans.
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One woman’s inspiring journey to volunteering with veterans.

The day turned out nothing like I expected it to.

I was holed up in Seattle for business, having flown in early to experience a bit of the city. While some find rain charming, this Florida girl found sightseeing in the drizzle less than desirable. Plopping down on the monochrome comforter, I reached for my computer, dreading my options: I could pull out the PowerPoint I had been editing on the plane, I could review my notes for tomorrow’s presentation, or I could attend to that ever-cascading inbox of unopened emails.

Not exactly what I had in mind for “first time in the Coffee Capital of the World.”

As I scanned through my mountain of emails, my eyes landed on one from my colleague, who told me of a documentary about World War II veterans visiting the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. I remembered telling myself at the time: “Britt, watch that. Sounds like something you might enjoy.

Like many people on the older end of the millennial generation, my grandfather served in the Navy along with two of my great-uncles, one of whose pilot wings pin currently sits atop my dresser. Unlike many people of my generation, my father is a 100 percent disabled Vietnam veteran. I grew up acutely aware of how people forget veterans and how war-generated pain is even more painful when service and sacrifice are neglected, which was especially true for our Vietnam vets. While as a nation we have become more thankful for our vets, it’s often the contemporary sailor and soldier who are thanked for doing their duty, not the war fighter of yesterday. And rarely is the family’s role in supporting their service member—before, during, and after deployment—acknowledged.

This was a source of internal frustration during my adolescence and young adulthood. And it only grew when my husband was commissioned as an officer in the Navy Reserve. In his oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, I took a silent oath, too—to support him. I beamed with pride at his decision to serve following his master’s degree and in addition to his full-time profession. But I wondered how I would communicate what this meant to our friends: the drill weekends each month, two weeks away every year, and the looming possibility of deployment.

The author with her husband, in uniform, and Royce, her first veteran “blind date.” / Author’s photo

The author with her husband, in uniform, and Royce, her first veteran “blind date.” / Author’s photo

Less than 0.5 percent of the U.S. population currently serves in the armed forces; more than 12 percent served during WWII. In recent history, 70 percent of Congress members had served in 1975, whereas only 20 percent of today’s congressmen have worn the uniform. We, as a society, are more out of touch today with the experiences of military families, their joys and their hardships, than any generation in the past century.

So, with a spark of curiosity, and, yes, I’ll admit, in the name of procrastination, I searched for Honor Flight: One Last Mission. Little did I realize how that decision would change my life—and the lives of several others I had yet to meet.

The documentary invited me into the lives of four humble old men. Men who picked up the paper at the end of their driveway each morning, who took delight in the simple task of greeting customers at the local grocery store, who had quiet homes peppered with knickknacks. The same men were on the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge and Iwo Jima. They survived a German prisoner-of-war camp and saw the now-iconic image of the American flag raised on Mount Suribachi—and none of their neighbors knew it.

Until one did. That neighbor also learned that approximately a thousand WWII veterans were dying each day, while the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., had only recently been completed—sixty years after the war ended.

These men came back from war, threw their duffel bags in the closet, found a job, got married, and never talked about what they endured as young adults. Now in their eighties and nineties, their lives had almost come to an end. Their stories had never been told nor had they been honored. So this caring citizen rallied his town, from radio stations to local schools, and got a flight full of veterans and volunteers to give these vets the day of honor they had long deserved. He gave them an Honor Flight.

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The Honor Flight Network is now a nonprofit organization that flies veterans, at no expense to them, to Washington, D.C., to see the war memorials built to honor their service to the nation. Since Honor Flight started in 2005, it has flown more than 138,000 veterans via more than a hundred hubs across the country. Top priority is given to WWII veterans and veterans who have a life-threatening illness.

Move over, droll high school documentaries; this was like watching an epic drama, following these men as they see their memorial for the first time, remember their fallen comrades, bond with other veterans, and reach back into the depths of their souls for the first time in more than half a century. I’ll save the best parts of the movie so that you can watch it for yourself. But for me, the best part of the story is what happened next.

I couldn’t go back to work. Or at least work-work. I knew I had Honor Flight work to do. I had a mission.

As soon as I came home, I told my husband we had to watch the film together. I was surprised to find that I was just as moved at the second viewing as I was at the first. We looked up the Honor Flight hub nearest to us, learned how much it cost to give a veteran the day of his or her life, and gave two trips in memory of our grandfathers who had passed away before they were able to see their memorial erected.

While that felt good, it wasn’t enough for me.

I visited my local hub’s website again and downloaded the application to become a guardian. A guardian is a volunteer who has the pleasure of accompanying the veteran for the day. The guardian’s job is to make him or her feel like royalty. The feminine pronoun and noun are important here. Far from just “Rosie the Riveter,” some 350,000 women served in the armed forces at home and abroad during WWII (not to mention the women who served by way of entering the industrial labor force, which was left vacant of many men).

I received my first call to volunteer a few months later. My “blind date” was Royce, a 94-year-old Army Air Force trumpet player. I picked him up at his nursing home to attend the pre-flight orientation. He was excited but also hesitant to go. Long a widower, Royce’s two sons lived far away. His only world was his assisted living facility. For one day, that would change.

He didn’t think he deserved the opportunity though. “I didn’t fight,” he sheepishly admitted. However, Honor Flight sees it differently, telling all service members, “Whether you served on the home front or the battlefront, you served.”

I told Royce that music has a way of expressing emotions, especially at difficult times, that words cannot. The songs he played at funerals, farewells, and welcome-home celebrations played a vital role in helping our nation grieve, find hope, and rejoice. Learning to view his instrument as his weapon changed Royce’s attitude and enabled him to embrace each memorial stop on our Honor Flight day.

Just when he thought the best of the day was past, Royce received his own musical tribute. Waiting for us at the baggage claim was the surprise welcome-home parade that most of the veterans traveling with us had never received. Thousands of people decked out in red, white, and blue gratefully waved flags to their soldiers coming home, one last time. The crowd was diverse, composed of military officials, children, therapy dogs, fellow vets who had flown on previous Honor Flights, and even 1940s bomber girls. Suddenly, these nonagenarians became twentysomethings. They all wanted their picture taken with those ladies.

The author accompanies Bob through a crowd welcoming their soldiers home as someone reaches to shake his hand.

The author accompanies Bob through a crowd welcoming their soldiers home as someone reaches to shake his hand.

The fanfare of the day was not just in song but also in memory. Royce and I had spent our Honor Flight day reviewing his life’s story: the responsibility he felt leading a military band, the magical moment when he first met his wife, the tragedy of losing their only daughter to a brain tumor. When I returned him to his assisted living facility, he told me that no one had ever asked him to tell his life story, and boy did it feel good not just to look back on his life but also to relive it. Prior to our adventure, he had no grandchildren. That day, he claimed me as his adopted granddaughter.

I was hooked. If I couldn’t take my own grandfather on an Honor Flight, I would continue to take other people’s grandfathers.

So, I signed up again. This time, I had the joy of spending the day with the 90-years-young Bob, who served as a navy corpsman at Iwo Jima and Saipan. For those unfamiliar with the corpsman’s role, he attends to the wounded during and after action. Subjecting himself to bullets flying around him, he bravely aided the men who fell on the nightmare beaches of the South Pacific.

Bob reads a handmade card reminding him of his service during World War II.

Bob reads a handmade card reminding him of his service during World War II.

He, too, had seen the flag raised on Iwo Jima. Somberly, Bob told me that the casualty rate in his unit was 85 percent. Understandably, he didn’t want to dwell on those stories. But as we cruised from the airport to our first memorial, he chuckled that our partnership reminded him of a special point in his childhood. He recounted, “You spending this day with me is like when I, as a 14-year-old Life Scout, spent the day with Civil War veterans at the 75th Gettysburg reunion in 1938.” I was amazed. The man whose hand I shook that morning had also shaken the hands of Civil War veterans! That war ended in 1865, more than 150 years ago. But here I was, with a living link to a critical juncture in our nation’s past. I doubt that teenage Bob knew that someday, someone would do for him as he did for those nineteenth-century veterans. It made me think, “Who will do this for the veterans in 2075?”

I can’t answer that question, but I can ask a different one: “Who will join me in honoring vets today?”

One friend raised her hand before I had formed the words. She had seen the hour-by-hour photojournalism I shared on my Facebook page the day of my second Honor Flight. She said she had never heard of the organization, she doubted others had, and we needed to change that.

Together as a team, and just like the man in Honor Flight the movie, we called upon our town. We asked others to show up for the silent veterans we begrudged on the highway, we failed to notice in the supermarket, and we passed in the pews. Our local newspaper ran a front-page story on our efforts, calling for donations, volunteers, and veterans. That columnist penned the question I had pondered in my heart. Our community answered it resoundingly.

Local businesses and nonprofits donated large sums. Individuals sent in checks ranging from $25 to $2,500. Elementary school classrooms drew thank-you cards. Friends gathered in homes for “Welcome home!” poster-making parties. Churches placed ads in their bulletins. I spoke at veterans commission meetings: the Vietnam Brotherhood gathering, the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, and an ex-POW chapter.

In months, we raised more than $30,000—enough to send eighty WWII veterans to see their hallowed sites. And we found enough guardians and veterans to fill an entire flight!

As my third flight day approached, I was fortunate enough to partner with a parishioner at my church. Jim had been a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy when America entered WWII. When the “tin can sailor” reported to duty on his destroyer, it was amidst a Japanese bombing raid.

Jim and the author share a moment in front of the Washington Monument. Little did Jim know that there are three people in this photo!

Jim and the author share a moment in front of the Washington Monument. Little did Jim know that there are three people in this photo!

He jumped from his boat and climbed a rope ladder on the side of the ship. His duffel bag swung over his shoulder while he dodged bullets (I’m going to remember that the next time I’m nervous about my “first day” at a new job). He shared what it was like to be a gunner, to go on bridge watch, to watch sharks follow the ship, to survive a monsoon, and to hold his breath as a torpedo came straight at him. About the latter, Jim gave credit to God for the miracle miss: a Japanese submarine had set the missile just ten to twelve feet “too low.”

He and his fellow sailors were spared, but Jim witnessed many who weren’t. Some of his orders included following in the wake of General MacArthur’s men across the Pacific Islands, which included recovering fallen soldiers. Jim didn’t say much more about that.

But he had a lot more to say after we had been home a few days. He called to thank me and explained, “When WWII ended, everyone was happy that the war was over, but it wasn’t personal. No one said thank-you to me.” No one had acknowledged that he had left his new bride for a far-off land. No one verbalized the sacrifice he suffered in not getting to know his son until he was 5 years old. But Jim said that all changed on his Honor Flight day.

Jim said, “My clergy wrote letters expressing their appreciation for my service. School children came up to me at memorials to shake my hand and say thank-you. You weren’t just my ‘guardian,’ you were my ‘guardian angel.’” (His words, not mine!)

When I boarded that last Honor Flight, I didn’t tell anyone that we had an extra volunteer joining us that day—I was pregnant with my first child. I chose to keep this a secret because I wanted the attention focused on my veteran, not on me. Now, I am proud to share that someday I will be able to tell my daughter that together we motivated a community to support our veterans and that she too spent the day with a WWII vet. Perhaps it just might inspire her to volunteer for that Honor Flight in 2075.

My day in Seattle didn’t turn out as I had envisioned it, and neither did the youths of the three veterans I met through Honor Flight. They were called upon and answered obediently, bravely, and sacrificially. I watched a movie, was moved, and convicted to act. You just read an article. How do you feel? What will you do?

How can you support Honor Flight?

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Time is running out for us to honor the men and women who served and sacrificed. Most Honor Flight hubs have long waiting lists; my local one was three hundred veterans long at last count. This is because each Honor Flight requires a tremendous amount of coordination and resources to give it liftoff, from airport cooperation to food sponsorships to wheelchairs to community support. There are many ways you can help: