Developing Camaraderie on an Honor Flight
By Caroline Gerber “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” Those are the words that Winston Churchill uttered during the darkest hours of World War II. While those words were spoken in 1940, they are just as relevant today as they were then. As American citizens, we are forever indebted to those who have served in the Armed Forces, and paying off that debt is our continuing duty.
Over 41 million Americans have served in the Armed Forces throughout our nation’s history, with more than 16 million of those serving during WWII. During the Vietnam era, 2.7 million American men and women served; their average age during service was 22 years old.
Nora Petty, Claire Gerber, Caroline Gerber, and Tim Rukavina get together with Lake County Honor Flight veterans. (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Petty)
Unfortunately, due to the social and political climate of the time, Vietnam veterans never received a proper welcome home to honor their service and sacrifice.
Though we cannot change the past, there are still ways to celebrate America’s veterans – especially those from the Vietnam War era – for their bravery and service.
One such way to celebrate veterans is through the Honor Flight Program.
Honor Flight is a national organization that flies veterans of WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, as well as critically ill veterans to Washington D.C.
Here, with their fellow servicemen and women, they experience their nation’s gratitude as enshrined in the monuments, memorials, and ceremonies dedicated to honor all those who have served throughout our nation’s history.
Since its inception in 2005, the Honor Flight program has provided this opportunity to approximately 275,000 veterans.
As a national organization, Honor Flight has hubs in 48 states, including three in Illinois, with one in Lake County.
Most Honor Flight hubs provide one-day excursions to our Nation’s Capitol, however, Lake County Honor Flights are unique in that they are designed to provide veterans with a three-day, fully immersive experience.
Recently I joined three of my Lake Forest High School classmates classmates – Timothy Rukavina, Nora Petty, and Teresa Claire Gerber – and participated as guardians for Lake County Honor Flight #23, which was dedicated to 25 Vietnam War Veterans.
On Lake County Honor Flights, each veteran is assigned one guardian for the duration of the trip. The guardian is responsible for raising the funds necessary to cover all costs for their veteran and themselves, (hotel, airfare, food, etc..) additionally they are tasked with ensuring their veteran’s safety, escorting them throughout the trip, and providing companionship.
Upon acceptance as guardians for Lake County Honor Flight #23, the four of us worked together to raise the necessary funds required to cover the cost of the trip.
Additionally, we reached out to local schools and gathered hundreds of gratitude letters to give to our veterans.
Prior to our trip, we completed a day of training, where we learned protocols and were introduced to our veterans.
On the day of the Honor Flight, all 25 veterans, 25 guardians, and support personnel met at 3 a.m. for the bus ride to the Milwaukee Airport and then onto our flight to D.C.
As the plane touched down at Reagan International Airport, the National Anthem began playing over the airplane’s loudspeaker. On the tarmac, our flight was greeted by fire trucks flying American flags. Veterans were welcomed by hundreds of grateful bystanders applauding and cheering for them as they disembarked the plane and walked through the airport.
The welcome home for veterans was a happy experience. Photo courtesy of Lake County Honor Flight Facebook page.
Over the next three days, we visited all the major war memorials, monuments, and museums, including, the Marines Memorial, the WWII Memorial, the Navy Museum, and the Pentagon Memorial.
Of the sites visited and experiences shared, the two that resonated most with our group of veterans were their time spent at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and their witnessing of the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.
At the Vietnam Wall, the veterans shared stories, said prayers, and shed tears as they honored those who had fallen. Many veterans searched for the names of their friends and comrades, tracing them from the wall onto paper, as remembrances in their honor.
At the Changing of the Guard Ceremony, four veterans from our flight had the honor of laying the wreath in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The wreath laying was a somber moment accentuated by light rain and the falling of tears as the veterans commemorated the sacrifice of all those who had fallen in service.
Overall, Honor Flight #23 provided a cathartic experience for the veterans. No longer did they need to suffer the burdens of war in silence. Through this journey, they had the opportunity to share stories, release emotions, and heal the wounds of the past.
One veteran said that “the three days on this trip were the best jump on the checkerboard of [his] life.”
Another veteran shared that the Honor Flight had cured him of the “fear and trauma” he had suffered for years following the war.
On our last evening together there was a “mail call,” reminiscent of those held during wartime, when soldiers would eagerly await the mail delivery in hopes of receiving a letter from loved ones back home.
Our Honor Flight mail call provided thousands of letters of gratitude to the veterans, many of whom were moved to tears by the magnitude of the outpouring of appreciation for their service.
The Honor Flight experience would not have been complete without a thunderous clap-out upon our arrival at the Milwaukee Airport, followed by a 12-car police escort and a parade of motorcycles as the veterans returned to the North Chicago War Memorial.
At the memorial, they were greeted by several fire engines, a DJ playing music, and a large welcoming crowd waving flags and applauding the veterans as they exited the bus.
If you choose to participate in the Honor Flight Program you will provide deserving servicemen and women with the experience of a lifetime. You will have the opportunity to facilitate their healing from the pains of war, and you will return with stories and an understanding of the veteran experience that no history textbook or movie could ever provide.
Over the three days on Honor Flight #23, we developed a true sense of camaraderie with the veterans. Though we met as strangers, we parted as family. Through our shared experience we forged bonds that transcended the decades between us.
As Korean War veteran Howard Osterkamp said, “All gave some, some gave all.” What can you give?