It’s a whirlwind trip of a lifetime and just a small way to thank those who have given so much. An Honor Flight provides military veterans with the opportunity to visit memorials in the nation’s capital. In addition to the tour, the veterans are treated to a sendoff with a prep meeting and dinner the evening before they leave and a proper, celebratory welcome home.
Jim Gruver, a resident at Lutheran Hillside Village, a Lutheran Senior Services (LSS) Life Plan Community located in Peoria, Illinois, served as an operating room specialist in the Air Force from 1962 to 1966. During this time, he spent 19 months in Turkey. He also served in the National Guard, eventually becoming a training non-commissioned officer. At Lutheran Hillside Village there are monthly veterans’ meetings where Gruver had heard several other veterans talk about Honor Flights and they encouraged him to apply. When a representative from the area Honor Flight organization visited, he helped Gruver put together his application and soon after he was accepted for an Honor Flight.
“It really amazes me how our country has decided to honor and memorialize all the different service groups – Air Force, Marines, Navy and so on,” said Gruver. “It’s such an honor to see all of it.”
An Honor Flight tour packs all of those memorials and more into one day. After arriving at Reagan National Airport, the group loads onto several tour buses and sets off. The veterans start at Arlington National Cemetery where they visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, watch the changing of the guard ceremony, and lay a wreath.
“There were a few tears, especially when they laid the wreath we brought at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and played ‘Taps,’” added Gruver. “Everyone chokes up at that.”
The day continues with stops at the World War II Memorial, Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean Veterans War Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the U.S. Navy Memorial, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, and finally the Air Force Memorial. As a former operating room specialist, Gruver was especially moved by the Combat Medic Memorial. When the Honor Flight returns that night, there’s a crowd of friends and family members and oftentimes a band and other performers to welcome the veterans home with patriotic songs.
“I was impressed with all the people who thanked us for our service,” said Gruver.
Not only was Gruver impressed with seeing the memorials and being a part of a great welcome home, he was equally impressed with the organization of the Honor Flight. And behind a lot of that organization is Tom Myers, a nurse at Lutheran Hillside Village. Myers served as lead nurse on Gruver’s Honor Flight, he made sure all the medical equipment was loaded on and off the plane and also worked with the veterans beforehand to make sure they would have everything they needed.
Each Honor Flight takes a medical team of nurses, firemen, and a doctor. There is a nurse aboard each tour bus in case medical assistance is needed. In addition to medical personnel, the Honor Flight coordinates wheelchairs for every veteran just in case one is needed.
“We do whatever it takes to make their day special,” said Myers of his experience serving on Honor Flights. “Without them we may not be here today.”
Myers got involved in the Honor Flights after witnessing his wife’s uncle return home from one. He was so moved by the welcome home celebration, he called the organizer and asked how he could be a part of an upcoming Honor Flight. Before joining the medical team, Myers had to serve as a guardian and be a companion and helper for a veteran on an Honor Flight.
On Myers’s assignment as a guardian, the veteran he was paired with told him he had been praying for an angel and that he believed his prayers had been answered through Myer. The Honor Flight was a great experience for Myers and the veteran he traveled with. After returning home, Myers developed the photos he had taken and put together an album for the veteran, which he took to him in the hospital. A few months later the veteran’s wife called Myers and asked if he would come to the veteran’s funeral. When Myers arrived at the funeral the next day, the family greeted him with open arms. As he went to pay his respects he looked at the photos the family had selected to share some of the most important times of the veteran’s life. Of the 20 photos on display, 16 of them were from the Honor Flight.
“This is how much this means to these veterans,” added Myers. “I’ve been on 12 flights since and enjoyed every one. There are 75 to 77 veterans on every flight, we manage to get everyone on the plane, to all the memorials, and back home. Everything is taken care of for them.”
Realizing that not every veteran is able to take an Honor Flight, Myers is working with the team at Lutheran Hillside Village to bring a little of that experience to residents.
“This does make a difference for them,” said Myers. “It’s these extra things we do here that make their lives special, that’s what we do across LSS.”
If you know a veteran who is interested in taking an Honor Flight, visit www.HonorFlight.org