Last month, four local veterans were part of a group that was flown to the nation’s capital to remember the sacrifices of war and to be honored for their service. The so-called “honor flight” was part of a nationwide system of recognition of military veterans called Honor Flight Network. The four reflected on the experience on November 21 at Woodland Pond in New Paltz, and the roomful of attendees hung on their every word.
Honor flights are world-class affairs that each cost in the neighborhood of $200,000, a price which is borne by donations and offset by ample volunteer hours. Some of the largest donations come from ShopRite ($185,000 for this flight alone) and American Airlines, from whom the plane itself was provided. The veterans were told that the flight crew was all volunteer, and that the interest is so high that a lottery is held to decide who gets to sign on. The trip to Stewart Airport was accompanied by an honor guard of motorcyclists 85 strong, and wherever they went in Washington their bus had a police escort to stop traffic and let the veterans pass.
John Fracasse, who enlisted at the time of the Korean conflict, opened the talk with a military-like report on exactly where the group went, and at what time. He used the day’s schedule for reference, but noted when the actual facts on the ground started lagging behind the itinerary. He was impressed by the efficiency of the entire operation, especially the care with which they managed the many veterans in wheelchairs. Veterans from World War II are given top priority for honor flights, followed by any with a terminal disease; veterans from Korea are now getting seated with greater frequency as those from the so-called Greatest Generation die at a rate of more than 500 a day.
The trip began at ShopRite’s enormous store in Vails Gate, where they were welcomed by a crowd, and then to the airport, where they received a sendoff complete with a bagpipe band and a cheering crowd of all ages. That sense of welcome followed them throughout their day, and stayed with each of the four some weeks after the November 4 trip.
The convoy through the capital took the veterans to numerous sights, with a special focus on war memorials large and small, including those for World War II and Korea, and topical ones such as those for nurses and Air Force fallen. They also visited Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At each stop, volunteers called guardians — who each paid $500 for the honor of serving the vets on this trip — helped them off the bus, into wheelchairs and to the point of interest. The day was capped off with dinner at the Crowne Plaza, where they were greeted by the entire staff at the door and then treated to white-glove service throughout. A brass quartet piped them back onto the plane, where they enjoyed looking at greetings written to them by schoolchildren, many of them personalized.
One order of the day was that no one was judged based on what branch they were part of, where or how they served. “You were where you needed to be,” said Fracasse, who spent a good deal of his time during the Korean conflict in Labrador, as part of the newly-minted Air Force.
Bob Richter, who said he “volunteered to be drafted” for Korea, observed that the welcome was a far cry from his mustering out. “For me, when you left the service, there was no ‘thank you.’ That was normal.” He said he was “blown away” by the appreciation expressed throughout the day. “I haven’t come down off the ceiling yet,” he said.
Richter added that he felt as energized when he returned home at 10:30 p.m. as he did when he had been picked up at 5 a.m. that morning. Part of that was certainly excitement, but the way he was assisted also made a difference. He opted to use a wheelchair because, as he put it, “I’m not strong on my seat anymore,” and his message to other veterans in that situation was clear: “you won’t have any problem.”
The other two local participants, Jay Bishop and Albert Hoffman, agreed that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, recommended even for those who did not enjoy their time serving. The Hudson Valley flights have been scaled back to just three a year from four due to the cost, and donations are welcome. For information on getting a veteran on an honor flight, donating, or becoming a guardian, visit hvhonorflight.com.