|Photo courtesy of Louis Borth|
|A World War II veteran visits the National World War II monument as part of Honor Flight, a non-profit organization that provides vets an all-expenses paid one-day trip to Washington, D.C.|
U.S. veterans are dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates.
It’s a statistic that hits home for Bobbi and Bill Richards, whose fathers both served in World War II.
Although Bobbi’s father was able to see the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., her husband’s father did not.
"It took so long for this memorial to become a reality, most of the vets aren’t physically or financially able to get there on their own anymore," she said.
That’s why two years ago, the couple became involved in Honor Flight, a non-profit organization that provides World War II vets an all-expenses paid one-day trip to Washington, D.C. The Richards co-direct Honor Flight Columbus.
It’s an opportunity for old friends to become new friends, and for vets to explore and reflect their days in the military as they visit the WWII memorial and other tributes scattered throughout the city.
"The purpose is to get the veterans to see their World War II memorial before it’s too late," Bobbi Richards said.
It’s also a reminder of the more than 16 million who served in the Armed Forces, those who supported the war effort and the more than 400,000 who died.
Sometimes, Richards said, veterans will find they have a connection that even surprises them.
"In October, there were two vets on the trip," she said. "One of them was a prisoner of war in Moosburg, Germany. The other vet there liberated the POWs at Moosburg."
Stops along the tour in D.C. also include the Freedom Wall, Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, U.S. Navy Memorial and the U.S. Air Force Memorial.
Trips run one or two times a month from April through November, and are free to World War II veterans. The program relies solely on donations from the public, Richards said.
In 2009, Honor Flight took 520 veterans to visit the D.C. memorials with the help of donors and volunteers, who pay their own way.
With the average age of 85 to 86 years old, veterans may fear medical conditions won’t enable them to make the trip. But Richards said the organization has dealt with several barriers, including wheelchairs and other situations that require assistance.
"Our oldest veteran was 96 years old," she said.
When the veterans return to Port Columbus that evening, they are surrounded by family, friends and volunteers who cheer for them – giving them a welcome home many didn’t have when they returned from war.
"In all the vets I’ve talked to, there are only three who had a formal welcome home," Richards said. "(The volunteers) spend a lot of time thanking them and making sure America won’t forget what they did."
During the past two-and-a-half years, the Richardses have flown 32 times to D.C. The first flight, Bobbi Richards said, was the most emotional.
"It was such an unbelievable experience," she said. "Most World War II vets don’t share their stories. … You go on these trips and the vets start to tell their stories."
And those who don’t speak about their experiences during war share their stories simply by the expressions on their faces, she said.
"The courage they have, the fortitude. Most of us don’t have any idea what it would be like," she said.
Honor Flight is open to all World War II veterans in central Ohio. Veterans interested in flying to Washington, D.C. must fill out an application, though filling out an application does not commit the veteran to the trip if the veteran chooses not to go after all.
Applications are available online at www.honorflightcolumbus.org or by calling (614) 284-4987.
Volunteers also are needed to welcome home veterans at the airport, do paperwork, write letters and conduct other administrative duties.
Donations may be made online as well, or may be sent to 2185 Ridgecliff Road, Columbus, OH 43221.