On the eve of Veterans Day, the speaker at our Optimist Club meeting was a most appropriate one. Bill Fletcher is a Gainesville man who, as a 21-year-old fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
This night he wasn’t there to talk about his war experiences. He was there to tell us about the Honor Flight Network, a program to honor our World War II veterans and provide them with an opportunity to visit the Washington, D.C., memorial that opened in 2004.
Bill first heard about the Honor Flight Network at an investment meeting. A fellow attendee mentioned that he’d just returned from an Honor Flight and gave a few details. Bill’s curiosity was piqued and he did a little online research. He learned that any World War II veteran is eligible to apply for an all-expense-paid day trip to the monument.
He filled out an online application. Months later, he was notified that he’d been selected to go on the Honor Flight leaving from Fayetteville on a Saturday morning last September.
If Bill was expecting a simple guided tour, he got far more than he bargained for. From the moment they arrived at the church that served as the 6 a.m. assembly point, these veterans were treated as the heroes they are. They were given special Honor Flight T-shirts. There was a "guardian" assigned to every two veterans to take care of any need that might arise.
At 82, Bill was one of the youngest of the 55 veterans on the flight. Because of the number of participants with medical issues, there was a physician, three nurses and six first responders traveling with the group. There was a wheelchair available for each attendee. Arrangements were made in advance for any veteran who needed a supply of oxygen while on the trip.
There was an honor guard to see them off. As they loaded onto the buses for the ride to the airport, they were flanked by cheering flag wavers. The motorcade of buses was led by Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycles. This is the group that has earned acclaim for attending funerals of fallen service members and shielding the families from the sights and sounds of lunatic fringe demonstrators. On this day, they had a much happier mission.
At the Atlanta airport the vets were met by more cheers and an enthusiastic send-off orchestrated by the USO.
Once in our nation’s capital, they received a guided tour and then arrived at their primary destination: The National World War II Memorial. They were greeted by former Sen. Bob Dole, himself a wounded veteran of that war, and his wife, Elizabeth.
Bill showed a DVD of their visit. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as we watched these elderly men and women revisit a part of their past that helped shape them into the people they became.
I thought back to high school and to my best friend’s father. He was a mild man who always read the newspaper in his undershirt and sold auto parts for a living. I’d known him for years before I discovered that he was one of the soldiers who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau.
To me, he epitomized the World War II veteran: young men and women who faced unspeakable evil and suffering without flinching, did what needed to be done and then came home and got on with their lives.
The clock’s ticking. If we’re going to honor these heroes it has to be soon. Nationwide, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of about 1200 each day.
Please encourage any veteran in your life to explore the possibility of attending an Honor Flight. The next group of flights from Fayetteville will be in the spring of 2010. Go here to apply.
The Honor Flight Network uses 92.7 percent of all donated funds to safely transport veterans to their memorial. By the end of November, they will have provided a remarkable 42,000 visits. Preference is given to World War II veterans and any terminally ill veteran of any war. As time goes on, the program will naturally transition to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars and all other veterans who served.
There are opportunities to volunteer as guardians and support staff. Here is the Web site.
The Honor Flight motto is a Will Rogers quote that says it best: "We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by."
Let’s all applaud while they’re still here to hear us.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears regularly every other Friday and on gainesvilletimes.com.