I’ve been volunteering with Honor Flight Chicago since 2009 and have been asked to go on the flight as a guardian for a World War II veteran several times. I kept putting it off, mainly for silly reasons. Although my grandfather served in the war, I am extremely unknowledgeable about the details of the war and military jargon in general. And, as someone who is pretty shy and extremely introverted, I was worried about being “on” all day long and having to make small talk. Plus, I was nervous about being responsible for a ninety year-old veteran all day. What if he fell? What if I didn’t notice that he was suffering from heat exhaustion? What if he wandered off to a bar and got lost in DC?
Those worries all seem silly now. The second I met my veteran, Chester (above right) I knew we were going to have a wonderful day. He and his friend John (top, left) both signed up for Honor Flight.
Before we boarded our plane, we had some entertainment–songs from the 1940s–at the gate while everyone enjoyed coffee and donuts. Honor Flights are quite a site to see at the crack of dawn with music and flags and so many veterans and volunteers packed into the gate. We boarded our plane and headed to DC at 7AM…the start of a very long day! When we arrived at the Dulles Airport in DC, there was a parade of people, both volunteers and active military, to welcome us. The reason I am pushing an empty wheelchair above is because Chester (who is a spry eighty-six years old) was too fast for me…he didn’t need the wheelchair. (I was jokingly offering Rob-the-Photographer a ride….you had to be there…)
We drove past the Iwo Jima Memorial (technically the Marine Corps War Memorial) on our way into DC to see the World War II Memorial. The day was really different than our normal Honor Flight day because of the government shut down. There was some question whether or not we would even get to go into the Memorial, but thanks to our Illinois Senators and Representatives, the barricades were removed. (We were prepared to break down the barricades. Naoto even made me carry bail money.) Several members of the media were there, trying to get interviews with the veterans about the government shut down and how it affected them, and there was a large group of protesters, too. Chester and John were both interviewed by the Washington Post and ABC News. It was a little bit sad to see that the memorial’s fountains were turned off (because of the government shut down) but the memorial was still beautiful. We took our time, spending a quiet spell in the shade. It was hot for a fall day. Then all of the Honor Flight participants met for the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem and a moment of silence. After our time at the memorial, our day strayed from the regular Honor Flight program. Normally, we spend time at the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials and the Abraham Lincoln Memorial and then visit a Smithsonian Museum but those were all closed because of the shut down. Instead, we went to the Newseum, a privately owned museum dedicated to reporting and the news. On the top floor, there is an awesome view of the Capitol. John, Chester, Barb and I cooled off and explored the museum. We looked at the Pulitzer Prize winning photographs from the 1940s and saw the JFK exhibit and the antenna pulled from the World Trade Center on 9/11 (pictured above). Next, we stopped at the Air Force Memorial. John and Chester hung out on the bus during this part. The day was getting long and the weather was warm. Barb and I popped out just to see the memorial, which is crazy-amazing…you can read more about the design here. It took my breath away. It reminded me a little bit of the Arch in St. Louis and of the Vietnam Memorial because of its simple, but powerful design. After the Air Force Memorial, we drove into Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And then it was on to the airport to get ready for the flight back to Chicago. At Dulles, there were many volunteers at our gate to help us celebrate the end of our day in DC. Chester shook a lot of hands that night. Once we got on the plane, it was hard for me to concentrate because I knew the “mail call” portion of the flight was coming. I sat in between John and Chester (they insisted) and chatted with them until I got the nod to come up to the front to help pass out the big envelopes of mail. It was rewarding to see the vets open their mail and read it…all of those hours sorting and packing the mail…definitely worth it!
And, much to my surprise, there was a mail call for me with an envelope filled with letters from our volunteers. It was a wonderful surprise…I’m slowly making my way through them…everyone who volunteers with Honor Flight is so amazing and kind. Once we arrived back at Midway Airport (at around 8:30PM), Chester and the rest of our Honor Flight veterans were welcomed home by an enormous crowd of active military, scout troops, family and friends. Chester was escorted through the parade by the sailor above. It was awesome watching them and hearing people cheer for and thank Chester by name. He shook many, many more hands. He and John could not believe all of those people came out to thank them and the rest of the veterans!
It was such a long day, but worth every minute. I’m so glad I let Barb talk me into going. It was such an honor to spend the day with Chester and John and the eighty-eight other veterans on the flight. I’m so thankful…not only for the opportunity to go on the flight, but that I’ve had the opportunity to do this work and meet so many amazing volunteers and veterans.
Most of the pictures on this post were taken by Rob Williamson, one of our Honor Flight Chicago photographers. More pictures from our day (and when I say more, I mean a few thousand) can be found here.