Honor Flights reinforce nation’s gratitude

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Eight times each year a special flight departs Austin bound for Washington DC, a flight often jammed with stories and countless unknown heroic deeds held in the hearts of the many American veterans on board.

Honor Flight Austin is part of a nationwide network of organizations with the sole purpose of bringing veterans up close and personal with the memorials and monuments to their service that dot the landscape of the nation’s capital.

“Most of these veterans haven’t ever had the opportunity to go to Washington DC and see the memorials built in their honor,” said Matt Mathias, the Chair of Honor Flight Austin. “The Word War II Memorial was not dedicated until 2004 by President George W. Bush, so it was 65 years after World War II ended that the memorial was dedicated.”

Among a handful of Liberty Hill area veterans to experience all the excitement and emotion of Honor Flight was James Hanley, who flew to DC in April for his first look at the memorial to the war he participated in.

“Saturday morning we went to the WWII memorial first and I have never seen anything like it,” Hanley said, adding he was most moved by the Golden Stars on the memorial. “There were 4,048 stars, each representing 100 of the 448,000 service men killed during that war. That’s a whole lot of loss of life, but through those guys giving their lives they turned this world around.”

Thanks to the efforts of his family, especially his daughter, to encourage Hanley to consider the trip and worked to get him signed up, he boarded the flight in Austin with 29 other WWII vets among the 50 total.

As an artilleryman in the U.S. Army during World War II, Hanley took a ship to Japan to serve as part of the occupation force following World War II. He spent 33 months in Japan, but within a short period of time Hanley found himself assigned to a Military Government Team, initially for three months, which were established throughout the country to oversee and assist Japanese local government as the country was rebuilt through occupation.

Mathias said for most veterans this is their first time to see the memorials, and often the first time in decades they’ve had the opportunity to be with others who had similar experiences. And all the memorials touch each veteran differently.

“The veterans are overwhelmed,” he said. “The World War II Memorial is so majestic and reminiscent of the impact of that war. The Vietnam (Memorial) is so personal, to see these guys get down on their knees and take a crayon and a piece of paper and do rubbings of their buddies’ names with tears flowing down their cheeks. It’s an extremely personal memorial. The Korean (Memorial) is just so lifelike of a platoon marching on patrol that it’s eerie because you can walk around on it and everywhere you look a platoon member is staring you in the eyes.”

Having an opportunity to remember and honor others and see the recognition the country has offered these veterans is critical.

“It’s a very healing process and an honoring process for the veterans to get to go,” Mathias said. “The World War II generation was told to come home, get to work and not talk about what they’d seen or heard, and they did that. They just came home, got jobs, created companies and rebuilt this country after really saving the world from tyranny.”

The original focus of Honor Flight was to get World War II veterans to DC to see the World War II Memorial because their numbers were dwindling so quickly as they aged, but today Korean conflict veterans and even Vietnam veterans are participating in the program as well.

“To my surprise, I think it’s the most healing to the Vietnam veterans,” Mathias said. “They came home and were literally told not to wear their uniform when they returned to the United States. They were just abused when they came home and never got a welcome home. For them to see the crowds in DC cheering them and thanking them and welcoming them, it is an extremely emotional and healing weekend.”

Hanley was glad to see veterans from all three conflicts being recognized and honored.

“I was glad to see Vietnam included as well,” he said. “I know after the ticker tape parades in New York after World War II things began to change because people just didn’t understand what those Vietnam veterans went through.”

The veterans all get the star treatment, from a nice hotel to a recognition banquet, to police escorts through DC as they travel by bus from one memorial to another. Each one gets a wheelchair and an escort to push and help them as well.

“We were two busloads of veterans with the DC police led the way,” Hanley said. “It was such a short trip and so much to see they got us moving around quick. This little girl named Angel pushed me in the wheelchair everywhere. I kept asking her if she was tired and she just said she was fine. Come to find out she was a Marine herself.”

Almost as joyous and important for the veterans as seeing the memorials, is the reception they got in the airports and around the capitol.

“When we got to Washington the trip through the airport was unbelievable,” Hanley said. “There were so many people there to greet us, untold numbers of kids. If that don’t bring a tear to your eye nothing will. We still have some good Americans and they make you proud of your service.”

That appreciation and welcome is something Mathias said can never be underrated in its impact.

“That spontaneous appreciation by the crowd, and these are strangers is special,” he said. “You walk off that plane in DC and you start seeing these guys and they start shedding tears. It is amazing to see the number of people in the airport waiting for their flight, who are standing there crying and clapping as these men and women pass by. It is amazingly honoring and it reminds these people what they did was not in vain.”

The trip made a lasting impression on Hanley, something he will never forget.

“I never imagined something like that,” he said. “I was glad to see so many people recognized and get to do this. I hope it continues.”

Each flight ends with the same result, according to Mathias.

“They have a new joy, they feel complete, a burden is lifted for so many of them as they experience it.”

It takes 75-100 volunteers to make a single flight happen, and it takes a little more than $1,000 per veteran to send them on the trip. To date, Honor Flight Austin has taken just over 2,000 veterans on the trip.

To learn more about Honor Flight Austin, or to donate or volunteer, go to the organization’s website at honorflightaustin.org.

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