As America’s veterans age, one local organization is committed to remembering the legacies of senior veterans as well as celebrating their service.
Honor Flight Columbus is a nonprofit organization that works to send veterans from central Ohio to Washington D.C. free of charge to visit their respective war memorials. Honor Flight Columbus is the local extension of the Honor Flight Network, a national organization.
Kay Downing, operations director for Honor Flight Columbus, said that the organization began as a way to make it possible for aging World War II veterans to see their memorial in Washington.
“In 2004 when the World War II (monument) was actually dedicated, (Honor Flight founder Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force Captain) talked to his (veteran) patients and asked them if they wanted to go,” Downing said. “A lot of them would say, ‘I can’t afford it, I don’t drive anymore, I can’t get there, my family’s not going to be able to take me.’ So he came up with the idea of that him and his pilot friends would take these veterans in Washington, D.C. to see the memorial.”
That first flight, they took 12 veterans, Dowling said.
A lot of people said the first time anybody has thanked them for their service was through this.” — Kay Downing, operations director, Honor Flights Columbus
Founded in 2007, Honor Flight Columbus has since flown over 4,700 World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans to visit their memorials.
Honor Flight veterans are flown out of John Glenn Columbus International Airport around 7 a.m. and spend the day touring Washington, D.C. Veterans ride through the nation’s capital on charter buses escorted by police officers, stopping at the World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and Lincoln memorials, as well as Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard. Veterans arrive back in Columbus around midnight, greeted by family, friends, airport patrons and the OSU Marching Band and Alumni Band.
“They line up, clap, cheer, and wave them through. A lot of people said the first time anybody has thanked them for their service was through this,” Downing said.
Herbert Ockerman, a meat science professor at Ohio State and an Air Force veteran, volunteers as a ground crew member for Honor Flight Columbus, helping veterans check-in and feel at ease.
“My job is to check them in when they come, but I have a sub-job to make these people feel more appreciated and more at home,” Ockerman said. “Many veterans kept their experiences bottled up, haven’t even told their family because a lot of the things they’ve had to do aren’t pleasant and they’d like to forget them. And it’s pretty hard on your health when you do that. So my job is to try to make them laugh a little bit and get them to start talking”
Each of the flights cost around $55,000 to operate and are funded entirely through donations. Guardians and volunteers who escort the veterans all pay their own way.
Honor Flight Columbus takes on average six trips to Washington, D.C. each year, sometimes taking additional trips for special groups. Earlier this year, Honor Flight Columbus took a flight of all female veterans and another of 97 Vietnam Purpleheart Veterans.
Downing said that on the trips, many veterans open up about their experiences during their service – some for the first time.
“Some are taken back. They wonder, ‘Why me? Why am I getting this attention? I was just doing my job,’” Downing said. “They went to war, paid the price, meet back up with their families, and went back to work. A lot of veterans never talked about what happened during the war. One of our jobs is to get them to open up with their stories.”
Downing said that Americans have a lot to thank its veterans for and that gratitude is central to Honor Flight Columbus’ mission.
“We have today due to what our veterans did,” Downing said. “We owe our veterans so much due to their service and sacrifice … We all need to step back and say ‘thank you’ whenever we see a veteran and let them know they’re appreciated for their hard work and their service.”