Honor Flight gives veterans ‘best day of life’Written by Kathryn Milstein | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Douglas Dennis rarely sees his father cry.
But the 89-year-old World War II veteran cried during his trip to Washington D.C., when Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio (HFNWO) took Ronald Dennis and his son on a trip to see the World War II memorial.
Douglas, his father’s guardian for the trip, said his father’s tears were how thankful he was for all the respect the veterans received.
“It probably was the most wonderful day my father and I have shared together in our entire life. My dad has already told me he feels that way,” Douglas said. “It’s an unbelievably patriotic experience, an emotional experience. I learned so much more about what my father experienced in World War II.”
HFNWO is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization that sends U.S. veterans from Northwest Ohio to see the memorials in Washington, D.C. As of the most recent trip June 22, which the father and son attended, more than 700 veterans have made the daylong trip. The next scheduled flight is Aug. 31.
All expenses are paid for the veterans, who often have a yearlong wait after submitting an application before they get on a flight. Guardians, the designated caretakers for the veterans, pay a $400 fee.
Douglas said the memorials they visited — which included the World War II memorial, the Korean War memorial, the Vietnam memorial, the Air Force memorial, the Marines memorial and the Changing of the Guard for the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier —were beautiful.
“The amount of respect I have for what our World War II veterans went through is a whole magnitude more,” he said. “It is an outstanding tribute. The history that you are educated or reminded of is phenomenal.”
Jack Paquette, an 86-year-old veteran from the June 22 flight, said he was astonished by how realistic the Marine Corps statue looked, by how emotional the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb was and the amount of people who wanted to pay their respects.
“Every place we went, people would stop us. I had people from foreign countries stop us, wanting to talk about World War II,” he said. “There again, there were complete strangers who came up and thanked us for our service.”
The veteran spent about a year on the waiting list before being given the chance to go on the flight. He said it was worth it.
“I’m tremendously honored to have the opportunity,” he said. “I’m so pleased at this volunteer group who sacrificed a lot to make it possible. They cost a tremendous amount of money to sponsor these. I’m very, very grateful for what they have done and being honored by being eligible to go.”
A history buff, Paquette said he hopes Honor Flight continues until at least the Vietnam War veterans are able to attend, because they deserve to be honored after the public’s villainous homecoming. The men were spit on and publically humiliated, he said, when most of the men had been drafted and wanted nothing to do with the war.
He said in contrast, the send-off and welcoming home party the veterans received from the flight was heartwarming.
“I was astounded at the number of people who came out to the airport to see us off to Washington, and more astounded by the horde of people who met us at Washington.”
There was one man who stopped Paquette at the gate. The man thanked the veteran for his service and mentioned that if it had not been for him, he would be speaking German or Japanese. Paquette said he never thought about how Germany or Japan would have occupied the U.S. if it lost World War II.
Paquette, who has written six books, had spent three years in the U.S. Navy fighting against the Japanese. His guardian, Eric Swisher, spent three years in the Army, a bonding point for the two.
“I called [my guardian] my hero,” Paquette said. ‘He was a 46-year-old army veteran himself. He served in Germany. He served three years right out of high school. ”
Swisher, a first-time guardian, said he would be a guardian again in a heartbeat.
“It was like I was his friend. We had a great time. We’re both history buffs. We just hit it off real well,” he said. “Well, his experiences were a lot more greatly in depth than mine because I was in during a peace time.”
He said Paquette told him many stories about the Japanese kamikazes, but the story that stuck was about how he saw the atomic bomb clouds from a distance when the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Mary Kemp, an 89-year old retired war secretary, did not watch the bombs drop but said she was ecstatic every time she wrote a discharge letter for a troop who had.
“Every time I typed a discharge letter, I felt so good because it meant one of our men was coming home alive,” she said. “It’s a good feeling.”
Kemp was enlisted for 22 months and discharged in 1945 at the end of war. She said it was breathtaking to see the memorials.
“Everything I saw, especially depicting all the men who had served to keep freedom for America, I get emotional over it because it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing they’ve done,” she said.
The statue of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima was especially emotional for her. She said the men who raised the flag were shot two days after the event, and the statue did a wonderful job in honoring those sacrifices, she said.
Kemp, who waited three years to attend the flight, said her memories of the war were so vivid, she wanted to see if the memorials would remember the events the way she did.
“It was just, to me, so beautiful. I wish everybody would go to see that,” she said. “I wish I could get on a loudspeaker and travel around the streets to [tell people to] go see it, please. The memories of what those people did for us… ”
She said her guardian, who she named as Kathy, would get the wheelchair whenever she was feeling tired. While she occasionally got feisty, Kathy would handle it with ease.
“I’m going to adopt her, I think. She was exceptional in caring for me,” she said. “I get so emotional because I think it’s a wonderful thing to give up yourself for something else.”
Kemp said whenever she got too feisty for Kathy, Jim Tichy would calm her down and get her reorganized.
Tichy, HFNWO emeritus board of directors presenter, said the organization sends 80 veterans and 80 guardians on each flight this year, up from last year’s 50 veterans and 50 guardians.
“Every [flight] is an emotional experience because of what these men and women have gone through. For most of them, World War II was a turning point in their lives,” he said.
He said both veterans and guardians have a tremendous emotional experience.
“We’ve had quite a few guardians tell us it was the best $400 they ever spent in their life,” Tichy said. “Many of our veterans told us that this has been the best day of their lives. It means so much to these veterans to be honored in this way.”
He said during the trip, people would recognize the veterans from the tangerine T-shirts the group wore. The people would come up to the veterans and thank them for their service.
When the veterans arrive back in Toledo about 9 p.m. the day of their trip, about 500 people welcome them back home. The party, which has family, friends and entertainment, gives closure to the veterans, Tichy said.
“What we try to do at the end is the welcome home party they didn’t get 60 to 80 years ago,” he said.
Tichy helped Douglas, who lives in Denver, Colo., plan the guardian training and trip so he could share the experience with his father.
“I just cannot imagine it being done any better to honor the World War II veterans,” Douglas said. “And the people who run it are so dedicated. With all the problems of our country, you really get to see what a true American is when you get on this flight.”