A Bittersweet Trip on the Honor Flight Network
June 13, 2012 at 1:13 a.m.
In May 2005, an incredible effort was started to bring veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam from across the country to see the Washington, D.C. memorials constructed in their honor. The Honor Flight Network got its start when Earl Morse, a retired Air Force Captain and physician assistant in a small VA clinic in Springfield, Ohio, wanted to find a way to honor those he'd been caring for during his nearly 30-year career.
In the spring of 2004, a popular topic of discussion among Morse's patients was the recent completion of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. When Earl asked these veterans if they would plan to see the memorial in person, many said they hoped to do so with the assistance of friends or family members. However, during follow-up visits at Morse's clinic, most of these veterans had resigned themselves to the fact that it would not be physically or financially feasible to make the trip to Washington.
Morse was determined to fix this. In addition to being a physician assistant, Morse also flew as a private pilot for one of the nation's largest aero clubs. In December 2004, Morse asked one of his patients if he could personally fly him to visit his memorial in D.C., at no cost to the veteran. The veteran broke into tears and gladly accepted Morse's invitation. By January of 2005, Morse had reached out to several fellow pilots to ask their assistance in making this dream a reality for many more veterans. He held a meeting with about 150 pilots and outlined a proposal for flying veterans to the D.C. memorials. He made two requests clear. His first was that the veterans paid nothing; the entire cost of the flight would be absorbed by the volunteer pilot-anywhere from $600 to $1200. His second request was that the volunteer pilots personally escorted the veterans around D.C. for the entire day. At the end of his pitch, 11 pilots stood up and volunteered.
A board was soon formed, more volunteers signed on to assist, and funds were raised. The first flight took place in May of 2005. Six small planes flew 12 veterans to the Washington metro area, where they were escorted in vans to visit the memorials. The veterans' response was extremely moving, and they said it would be an experience that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. Word soon spread and by the end of 2005, commercial aircraft had been employed to transport the growing number of veterans interested. By the following year, similar efforts were springing up across the country, and on September 23 and 24, 2006, a U.S. Airways-chartered jet filled with World War II veterans and their guardians flew to Washington, D.C.
Soon the Honor Flight Network was born, and Southwest Airlines donated thousands of free tickets. With the assistance of Southwest, which was named the official carrier of the Honor Flight Network, and thousands of volunteers, in the past seven years the Honor Flight Network has brought more than 80,000 veterans to Washington, D.C.
Just this month, I had the privilege of meeting an incredible group of veterans from North Texas who visited Washington courtesy of Honor Flight DFW, an Honor Flight Network hub serving veterans across a 150-mile radius of North Texas. Honor Flight DFW's mission is to make the trip to Washington a reality for every veteran on their 400-person waiting list.
As the son of a World War II veteran, I can't think of a more worthwhile way to spend a few hours than visiting with these heroes as they see their memorials for the first time. Their personal experiences, stories and biographies are the stuff of war films and novels.
One veteran in this group, Rosebud native Robert Lucas, remembers clearly the moment that changed the course of his life forever. After graduating from Baylor University in 1941, Lucas found himself traveling by car to California for a new job. On December 7, 1941, Lucas stopped for gas in Phoenix, Arizona. At the gas station, he noticed several individuals gathered around a radio listening to the news that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor. With that, Lucas changed his plans and immediately joined the Army Air Corps.
After training, Lucas began flying missions in 1943. On his 14th mission, Lucas was piloting a B-24 over Germany when dense clouds obstructed his target. Lucas' B-24 was hit by flak but he spotted a field of snow and managed to belly-land the bomber near the border of Germany and Switzerland. The Swiss interned Lucas and his fellow aircrews. After a six-month internment, Lucas narrowly escaped. He disguised himself as a woman and walked to a nearby train station. Once aboard the train, a Swiss officer sat next to him and began engaging Lucas in conversation. Fortunately, Lucas knew some French and managed to make a bit of conversation, while holding a newspaper close to his face. In Geneva, Lucas exited the train and made his way to a safe house owned by a rich American who assisted U.S. servicemen in getting out of Switzerland. After several additional close encounters, Lucas made his way to the border between Switzerland and France, where he jumped the fence dividing the two countries and continued running west. He eventually made his way to England and to safety.
Prior to visiting the World War II Memorial, Lucas said the visit would remind him, among other things, of the empty bunks in his barracks that greeted him after each mission-the "crewmen that didn't come back that day." Hardly a day passes when Lucas does not think about the war.
I commend the men and women who have made the Honor Flight Network possible and brought thousands of veterans like Robert Lucas to see and touch the memorials that honor their sacrifices. As we observe this Memorial Day, I hope we can each be reminded of their selfless service and as Lucas said, the many "crewmen that didn't come back."
May God bless our veterans, their families and our men and women in uniform serving today.
For more information and volunteer opportunities, visit: http://www.honorflightdfw.org/. Other Honor Flight Network hubs in Texas include: Alamo Honor Flight (San Antonio); Heart of Texas Honor Flight (Hewitt); Honor Flight Austin; Honor Flight Fort Worth; Texas Panhandle Honor Flight (Amarillo); and West Texas Honor Flight (Abilene).