By John Crutchfield, Messenger Contributor
There are many ways to say, “Thank you,” but Gary Lightfoot of West Jefferson has found an especially unique way.
Lightfoot is an Honor Flight guardian. For the past four years, he has escorted veterans to Washington D.C. to visit the war memorials.
Honor Fight is a national program that provides transportation and support for World War II and Korean War veterans who wish to visit the war memorials at the nation’s capital.
Established in 2004, the program is the brainchild of Earl Morse of Springfield, Ohio. Morse wanted to give World War II veterans the opportunity to see their memorial, which was completed in 2004. He organized the first flight in 2005 and the idea caught fire.
By the end of 2012, nearly 100,000 veterans had been flown to Washington D.C. free of charge. The Honor Flight Network is made up of 137 hubs and enjoys corporate sponsorship including a com-mitment of planes and crews from Southwest Airlines.
Lightfoot is one of thou-sands who have been caught up in the mission. For him, the journey began in 2010 with his father, Harfey Light-foot. Lightfoot decided his father, a World War II veter-an, should visit the memorial in Washington D.C.
“Health and finances make it difficult for many vets to make the trip. Dad was no different,” he said.
In May 2011, father and son made the Honor Flight trip together.
“Our family is very close. As kids, if one person got a haircut, we all went along. We did everything together,” Lightfoot said. “For me to be able to go on that trip, just the two of us, it was great to get to spend this time together. It meant so much to me.”
Most Honor Flight trips accommodate 80 veterans and their guardians. Such was the case on Lightfoot’s trip with his father.
“It was like being with a bunch of little kids. They wouldn’t shut up. They were talking and laughing and telling war stories,” Lightfoot said. “This was very different from my experience with most older veterans. They don’t always talk about it, the war or their experiences. But when they were together with others who had gone through it, it was O.K. to talk.”
When the plane landed at the airport in Baltimore, the passengers were greeted by people cheering and holding banners. From the airport, the group was taken by bus to the World War II memorial. Veterans on motorcycles led the way.
The experience ignited in Lightfoot a desire to become involved with Honor Flight.
“After I did it, it was like a fever. I had to be a part of it,” he said.
Since May 2011, Lightfoot has made five more Honor Flight trips as a guardian.
“This is no vacation. I pay my own way or I get sponsorship from local organizations. The (Madison County) Women’s Republican Committee is sponsoring my next trip, and the West Jeff Lions Club the one after that.”
Lightfoot said he finds out shortly before each trip who he is escorting.
“A guardian might have one, two or three veterans to look after. They are often in a wheelchair, need oxygen or have other medical concerns,” he said. “Some are not in good health. There is always medical staff on the flights to look after them.”
For the one-day trips, guardians arrive at Columbus International Airport at about 4:45 a.m. The Honor Flight veterans arrive at 5:30. A ground crew and welcoming committee in Baltimore prepare for the group’s arrival from Columbus.
“It takes a lot of people. As a guardian, you might be running the wheelchair lift and carrying a backpack with ponchos, as well as assisting your veteran. The welcome back at the airport in Columbus is just the same as Baltimore. The (Ohio State University) band has even been there.”
Lightfoot said the effort is worth the work. He recalled an occasion when Senator Bob Dole met Honor Flight participants at the monument and gave a speech. He remembers the senator saying, “You have to get all of them here that you can. In 10 years they will be gone. They all deserve to see this (World War II) memorial.”
“These guys get the red carpet treatment on the Honor Flight and they deserve it. They are welcomed like the heroes they are,” Lightfoot said. “I didn’t serve in the military but I recognize the sacrifice these guys made. I know what I owe them.”
Lightfoot noted that too many veterans never get to make the trip. The organization makes every effort to prioritize veterans that are terminally ill and may not be able to travel much longer. Openings on flights are sometimes given to Korean and Vietnam War veterans, if possible.
“Right now, the priority is World War II veterans,” he said.
For those who couldn’t make it
Prior to his first Honor Flight trip with his father, Lightfoot heard from a friend, Diane Winter whose father, also a World War II veteran, passed away without visiting the World War II memorial in Washington D.C. Lightfoot wrote Paul Winter’s name on his Honor Flight identification badge, telling Diane he would take her father with him in spirit.
On each subsequent Honor Flight, Lightfoot has carried with him the memory of veterans who never made the trip themselves. He acquired a badge-making machine and collected pictures of veterans and their stories from friends and acquaintances. He made the pictures into badges then pinned the badges to a lanyard to wear around his neck.
For his next trip, he has nine badges ready and more e-mails and pictures are rolling in.
“There are at least eight more pictures I am ready to print,” he said. “I am looking for a vest. I want to take as many of these veterans along with me as I can.”
Lightfoot has spoken to several community organizations about Honor Flight and has more speaking engagements on his schedule.
“My next flight is coming up on April 5. Support from the community has been great,” he said.
To submit a veteran’s picture for Lightfoot to wear on one of his next flights, send a photo, the veteran’s name and other relevant details to email@example.com.
Donations to support Honor Flight can be made to: Honor Flight Columbus, P.O. Box 12036, Columbus, OH 43212; or at honorflightcolumbus.org/contributions.php.