Veterans are moved to bittersweet tears and conflicting emotions when they visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., courtesy of the Honor Flight Network.
“I feel good I could come with a group,” a grateful Harley Dingman tells Newsmax.TV.
But “I feel guilty a little bit that so many of my comrades were left in the cemeteries in France, Belgium and the Netherlands,” acknowledges Dingman, an Army veteran who earned a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.
Dingman was reflecting on his being among about 1,200 World War II veterans who were able to visit the memorial this month, as Honor Flight works toward its goal of making sure that every veteran of the war gets to visit the memorial dedicated to their bravery and sacrifice.
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Many of the veterans the network takes would have trouble financing the journey themselves or would have difficulty traveling by themselves because of injuries. So the network pays for the trips and provides guardians for the veterans.
Often, a welcoming committee salutes the visiting heroes.
Former Sens. Elizabeth and Bob Dole have greeted more than 200 veterans at the memorial. Bob Dole is an honorary advisor to the organization.
“I love to be at the World War II Memorial when our veterans are coming in,” Elizabeth Dole tells Newsmax.TV. “To be able to thank them for their service — for saving our country, for saving our world for freedom and democracy — you just can’t say enough in the way of thanks.”
Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain, started the Honor Flight Network.
“It started back in 2004, when they dedicated this memorial,” he tells Newsmax.TV. “I was a physician’s assistant caring for about 300 World War II veterans in a VA [Veterans Affairs] clinic in Springfield, Ohio.”
Morse’s patients told him they would make it to the memorial eventually, that their children or Veterans of Foreign Wars Post would take them there. But when the vets would see Morse for follow-up appointments six months later, not one of them had made it.
“Reality set in: They were never going to see their memorial,” he said.
Morse, a pilot himself, recruited other flyers, and they took 12 veterans in six airplanes on their initial trip five years ago. Since then, they’ve taken 40,000 vets to the Capitol, including Korean and Vietnam War vets, in addition to their World War II brethren.
The first priority is World War II vets and the terminally ill vets from the next two wars.
“Our goal is to get every World War II veteran in this nation out to see their memorial,” Morse said. “This is 2010. This is America. Nobody is going to convince me we can’t do that.”
Unfortunately, World War II vets are dying at the rate of about 1,000 per day. “There’s a very narrow window of opportunity to get these veterans out here to see their memorial,” Morse said. “In another five to seven years, it will be a moot point. They’ll be gone.”
It’s not just an opportunity for the vets, he stresses. “It’s also America’s last chance to get them here. If there’s anyone out there that appreciates the liberty and freedom that we enjoy today, they’ll help us.”
The network receives no money from the government and little corporate support. “It’s a grassroots effort,” Morse says. The group’s web site is www.honorflight.org.
As for the Korea and Vietnam vets, “they deserve to see their memorials as well, because their sacrifice and bravery was just as great,” Morse points out. “So we’re making that happen as well.”
The strong bonds between different generations of the armed forces stand out, particularly when Vietnam vets serve as guardians for the World War II vets when they come to Washington, he says.
When the younger vets guide their elders around the memorial, “perhaps the World War II veteran will shed a tear, and the Vietnam veteran will comfort him,” Morse says.
“Then they go the Vietnam memorial, and you see the Vietnam veterans shed a tear, and the same World War II veterans will come and console them.”
So there’s a brotherhood and sisterhood among the vets that crosses all generations. “It’s a gathering of noble people who were willing to risk everything for all the freedom and blessings we enjoy today,” Morse says.
The World War II vets come to their memorial for two reasons, he says. First, they want to see how the nation is honoring their service.
“Just as importantly, they want to know how their friends will be remembered: their buddy that never made it off the ship, never made it out of the plane, never made it across the field.”
And when the vets make the visit, they’re overpowered, Morse says. “It’s the camaraderie, the appreciation that’s shown for them and the realization that they’re friends will never be forgotten.”
A veteran who spoke to Newsmax.TV during this month’s visit concurred, saying: “The reception we received was outstanding. People couldn’t be nicer. It brought most of us to tears.”
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