I’ve been volunteering with Honor Flight Chicago since 2009. Honor Flight Chicago’s mission is to fly World War II veterans (all expense paid) to Washington DC to see their memorial and to honor and thank them in the most amazing way. Most World War II veterans came home after the war and resumed daily life with no celebration, no parade, no fanfare. And they didn’t really expect it. And, many of them died before they were able to see the memorial that was finally built in their honor. In an effort to make up for lost time, once or twice a month from April-October, we fly 80-90 veterans and a group of volunteer “guardians” out of Midway Airport to Washington DC. In DC, they get on chartered buses, see the memorials, sometime see a museum, or Arlington Cemetery (it just depends on the timing of the day) and then they fly back. It is a whirlwind of a day–especially since most of these guys and gals are well over eighty years old! When they get back to Midway, they are surprised with a Welcome Home celebration. We pack Midway with more than 1,000 people and the veterans are paraded through crowds of people with waving flags, bagpipers, welcome home signs and lots of cheers. It is seriously a most amazing sight to see. Tears everywhere 🙂 There is nothing in the world like seeing a little old woman running to greet her soldier…it is almost as if you are seeing them sixty years ago at their love’s beginning…
I volunteered a lot in college, then when I graduated, work took over my life and I didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm for volunteer work. Randomly, I was on a stay-cation in the spring of 2009 when I saw a commercial for Honor Flight Chicago (incidentally, while watching the Golden Girls)…I immediately sent in my application, attended a training and started volunteering at three in the morning once a month that summer and fall. During the off-season, I missed it. In 2011, I began sharing the duty of Volunteer Coordinator with two others, Stace & Barb. And this year, I took on the daunting task of collecting mail for the veterans. You see, once a veteran is approved for the flight, we start having all of the veteran’s family and friends and neighbors and school children write him or her letters–in secret.
So this is how it all works: We have a team of volunteers that reaches out to a family contact for each veteran. The contact then spreads the word about Mail Call to all of the veteran’s family and friends and then those people write a card or letter to the Veteran and send it to me. My letter carrier–the best mailman ever!–brings me the mail (sometimes in one of those mail bins!) and I separate it into a big envelope for each veteran. Some days it takes me around twenty minutes; other days take an hour–especially as the deadline nears when I am getting several hundred pieces of mail each day. Some veterans get a TON of mail (as in over 200 pieces!), but some veterans don’t have any family left and get very little. We spread the word about these guys and volunteers jump in and make cards or write letters so everyone gets a nice packet of mail. And, teachers have their students write letters (which are both touching and hilarious).
On the day before the flight, I bag up all of my mail packs into sixteen backpacks that will be driven to the airport (in the “mail car”, otherwise known as my own personal Corolla) and distributed to volunteers going with the veterans. On the flight home from DC, the veterans are surprised with a giant envelope full of letters and cards from these people. Many of them say this is their favorite part of the day…and many of them say that reading these letters is like getting to attend their own funerals. Friends and family say things that are normally only said once someone dies–how much they love and appreciate them, how much they mean to them, how much they shaped their lives… It feels good to be a small part of something that means so much.