By SABRA STAFFORD
For the Central Valley Honor Flight, the mission is clear: take as many veterans as they can to Washington, D.C. to see the memorials. But in reality, the real emphasis is on honor, as the non-profit organization does everything they can to show these men and women the appreciation they so rightly deserve for their service to the country.
The Honor Flight Network, which encompasses more than 100 organizations, was formed in 2005 by Earl Morse, a retired Air Force Captain and Jeff Miller, a dry cleaning business owner.
Morse was a physician assistant at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Ohio and the son of a World War II veteran. At the time, an estimated 640 WWII veterans were dying each year and Morse realized that many of his WWII era patients would not live to see the memorial built in their honor. Morse was also a pilot and he initially volunteered to fly two veterans to D.C. He began pitching the idea to other pilots and by May 2005 the organization had been formed with a board of directors and the first trip of 12 veterans on six small planes was made to Washington, D.C.
Miller, who resided in North Carolina, was inspired by Morse’s efforts and thought he might be able to do something for the veterans living in his community. He formed HonorAir and chartered a flight that by the end of 2006 had taken more than 300 veterans to the memorial.
Morse and Miller met in Washington, D.C. in February 2007 and through that meeting, the Honor Flight Network was established. Over the years the trips have been opened up to Korean and Vietnam war veterans. By the end of 2017 the network had flown more than 200,000 veterans to Washington, D.C., all at no cost to the veterans.
For the Central Valley network, an incredible effort by a host of volunteers and staff is made to make sure the trip is extraordinary for the veterans. That effort includes a police escort to all the memorials so no time is wasted in traffic; catered meals; a stay at a first-class hotel; and a festive send-off and an even grander homecoming.
Each trip also has the possibility for some exceptional moments that can’t possibly be planned.
“There’s always something very special that happens each trip. You don’t know what it will be, but the possibilities are always there,” said Honor Flight volunteer Larry McFarland.
One such example was a chance meeting experienced by WWII veteran Joe Soldo on the organization’s trip in April. Soldo, 94, of Clovis was assigned to the 78th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. On Dec. 18, 1944, Soldo was captured at Kesternich and remained a prisoner of war through the end of the war. Soldo and the other POWs were kept on the move, marching through Germany and Poland and being kept at some of the Nazi’s death camps, including Auschwitz — an experience that still haunts his memories. It also was an experience that very few could fully grasp and so it was one he didn’t speak about often. It just happened that Soldo’s trip to Washington, D.C. coincided with the Holocaust Remembrance Day and while touring the National Mall the group came across a ceremony marking the occasion on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Soldo was able to meet a couple of survivors from Auschwitz and share a moment of reflection with them.
“That was incredible to get to meet them,” Soldo said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to meet another person who had been there.”
Soldo has yet to receive his prisoner of war medal, but the Central Valley Honor Flight is advocating on his behalf.
The organization does plan some special tributes to individual veterans along the trip to recognize their contributions and in some cases, their losses.
Fred Wackerman, 90, of Mariposa served as an infantryman in the Army’s 5th Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division in Korea from 1950 to 1952. Wackerman made it home, but two weeks after his return the family learned his younger brother Billy had been killed in action. During the trip to the Korean War Memorial Wackerman was given the honor of conducting a wreath laying ceremony with a lieutenant colonel from the South Korean Army in recognition of his brother’s sacrifice.
“This was an unbelievable experience they gave me,” Wackerman said. “It’s a memory I will carry with me.”
The two women veterans on the trip in April also were given some recognition for their service. Helen “Jimmer” James, 91, of Clovis was a member of the Air Force and served as a radio operator during the Korean War. Nicki Stewart, 85, of Clovis was a nurse in the Navy and served at a hospital in Japan treating wounded Vietnam War soldiers. The service of both women became part of the official registry at the Women in Military Service for America Museum during the trip and they were given certificates to mark the occasion.
“This is just amazing to have them do this for us,” James said.
The Honor Flight Network covers all the expenses for the veterans on the trip, which amounts to about $200,000 per trip. The program would not be able to do the work they do without the business sponsorships and individual donations. For more information on donating visit honorflight.org.