The Honor Flight Network is a program that started in 2005 by retired Air Force Captain and physician’s assistant Earl Morse in Springfield, OH. The program flies veterans to Washington, DC so they can visit the memorials dedicated to their service in the country’s past wars.
Morse came up with the idea for Honor Flight because he cared for several World War II veterans every day at the Department of Veterans Affairs clinic where he works. He spoke to many of them about the World War II Memorial, which was completed in 2004, and discovered while many of the veterans from that war wanted to see the memorial dedicated to them, they had no way to get there.
The thought that these veterans who risked their lives when they were young men and women might never get the chance to see the memorial dedicated to their service bothered Morse. It became his goal to see to it that anyone who wanted to go could go.
As a private pilot and member of the aero club at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH, Morse began asking veterans if they would allow him to fly them on his private plane to the memorial. Many broke down in tears at the offer.
From there, Morse asked more members of the aero club if they would be willing to pay the $600-$1200 cost for the aircraft rental to fly these veterans to their memorial and escort them throughout the trip. Eleven pilots agreed right off the bat without hesitation.
More than 130 veterans made it out to the memorial that first year thanks to the generosity of pilots willing to help out.
Word spread quickly about the program.
Pilots and veterans outside of Ohio heard about Honor Flight and they wanted to take part in its mission.
Jeff Miller of Hendersonville, NC did the unimaginable when he secured the funding necessary so that several veterans could fly together in a commercial airliner to Washington, DC and visit their memorial.
The use of commercial airliners meant more veterans could visit their memorial at one time and both Morse and Miller decided to combine their efforts by starting the Honor Flight Network.
This network streamlined the planning process so that veterans all over the country could be connected with flights out to Washington, DC.
Now, there are 71 hubs in 30 states. In addition, Southwest Airlines donated thousands of free tickets to the Honor Flight Network and was named its official commercial carrier.
The Honor Flight Network also goes beyond its initial focus to get WWII veterans to their memorials. The push behind getting WWII veterans to the memorial lies in the fact that close to 1,000 veterans from that war die every day, so time is of the essence.
However, veterans from other wars who are battling terminal illnesses also get to be a part of Honor Flight at this time.
By the end of the 2011 flying season in November, the Honor Flight Network transported more than 81,000 veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam to their memorials.
Now back to how the Honor Flight Network helps bring peace to veterans.
The late Harry E. Lillicrap, Jr., got the chance to close a chapter of his life when he took part in Honor Flight in the fall of 2006.
Lillicrap was a Seaman First Class in the United States Navy during WWII from 1943-46, but he never spoke about what he did in the war. His daughter, Melody Vallieu, said it was taboo in her family to even mention the war.
Vallieu said her father lost several friends in the war and his own brother was shot down in a plane over Europe and his body was never recovered.
“It was bad for him,” she said. “It was something that was just never discussed.”
In spite of never talking about his participation in the war, Vallieu wanted her father to take part in Honor Flight so he could receive the recognition for his efforts in fighting for the country that he deserved.
Vallieu contacted Honor Flight to get her father registered for a trip. When she first made contact with them, she was told she would have to wait until the following spring before space would be available. However, Vallieu said she wanted to be able to get her father their sooner.
Thankfully, a spot opened up on Veteran’s Day in 2006, and the father and daughter pair set off for what was to be their last adventure together.
All of the trips to Washington, DC last for just a day. Veterans and their guardians aboard a flight, spend the day touring the sites in the nation’s capital and, of course, visiting the memorials dedicated to veterans for each of the nation’s wars.
Vallieu said from the moment they got to the airport her day with her dad was incredibly moving.
It was Veteran’s Day so many people thanked the veterans traveling for their service. When the veterans got off their plane in Baltimore they were greeted by strangers holding signs up welcoming the Honor Flight veterans and a thunderous applause.
Vallieu choked up remembering what it was like seeing her father smile at the strong reception.
Once at the memorial, Vallieu said she heard her father speak about the war for the first time. She said she was sitting near him, but he didn’t see her, so he didn’t know she was listening when he began speaking to some fellow veterans about his experience in the war.
“It was amazing to hear about who he was and what he did,” Vallieu said. “He unleashed all these memories that he never shared with the family.”
Vallieu said that when they left that day, her father looked out the window as they flew over Chesapeake Bay with a soft smile on his face and looked peaceful.
“He looked calm like he had made peace with it and it was a relief to just let it go,” Vallieu said.
Once back home in Ohio, Vallieu said her father had the biggest smile on his face even though he was exhausted. She said he told everyone he knew about his experience with Honor Flight and how much he appreciated being able to go.
Lillicrap passed away three months after his visit to the memorial. At his funeral, Vallieu, who works for a newspaper, wrote a special column about Honor Flight and included her father’s experience and photos of the trip. She said that people came up to her time and time again during the funeral telling her what a special opportunity it was that she had with her father.
“Honor Flight ended up being the last official thing me and my dad got to do together and nobody can ever take that back from me,” Vallieu said.
For more information about Honor Flight or to register for a trip visit HonorFlight.org.