The month of May was truly Honor Flight month for Operation Meatball. Immediately following the Chino Air Show (which I talked about last post), OM began a whirl-wind trip to Peoria, Illinois.
Just a few weeks earlier, I had received a text from my dear friend (and Operation Meatball board member) Phyllis Piraino of Greater Peoria Honor Flight that they had a spot for me on their May 8th Flight. I was beyond ecstatic. As you all know, I LOVE working with Honor Flight, and there are few hubs I'd rather fly with than Greater Peoria. They were our very first Honor Flight nearly four years ago, and because of that, we share a special bond with them.
Notes from May 7:
Nearly 4 years ago we met our first Honor Flight at the WWII Memorial: Greater Peoria Honor Flight (GPHF). Today I got to see our very first Honor Flight vet, Bob L-, and tomorrow I fly out with GPHF for their V-E Day Honor Flight. Excited doesn't even begin to describe it. But it's a start. We have a bright and early start in the AM, so DC peeps: stay tuned for some pretty happy vets about to head your way!
The night before a trip, GPHF hosts a Pre-Flight Dinner. This is a wonderful opportunity for the vets to get together, meet, break the ice, give any final information for the trip the next day, and enjoy a hearty meal!
The details that go into this dinner are numerous. In fact, this is one of the things we first noticed about GPHF which sets it apart: their attention to detail and community effort. It isn't a millionaire who sends the vets to D.C., it is the hard work of the local community. During the last school year alone, students from grade schools in Peoria raised $106,480 to send their heroes, the veterans of the Greater Peoria area, to DC!! This is just incredible.
From the adorable goody bags decorated by local children, to the incredible pre-flight dinner, the veterans can't help but feel completely loved and honored for their service.
Mornings are early with Honor Flight, but the energy is always high enough to make up for it. First comes check-in, then photos, followed by the easiest trip through security that you'll ever experience.
Popping around, asking the vets if they were ready for the day, I heard from one of our Korean War vets that he had already had the most wonderful time, and he didn't know how it could get better. "Wait a minute! You can't say that," I told him. "It's 4:30 am in the morning, and we haven't even left Peoria yet." But he insisted. His cup was almost filled up with the happiness he had experienced in the last 24 hours. "Just you wait..." was all I could tell him, and I had to leave him contentedly thinking it couldn't get better.
Coffee and donuts provided by the Salvation Army, the National Anthem played by two darling little girls on the violin, and we are off!!
Arrival in DC!
Whenever an Honor Flight lands in D.C., the entire terminal is notified, and everything is put on hold to greet these heroes with handshakes, clapping, even a little music. Of course, the vets are not expecting this, and I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of moist eyes among the group.
National World War Two Memorial
First Stop: The National World War Two Memorial for the May 8, V-E Day Program. This was extra special for our group as we had 7 World War Two veterans on this flight who were invited to participate in the ceremony.
Photo credit: Greater Peoria Honor Flight
Needless to say, the memorials never get old ~ each visit is a new experience, a new memory. But visiting the WWII Memorial with WWII vets, and on such a significant anniversary as May 8, the end of World War Two... it's really hard to beat that.
Some of the WWII vets presented the wreaths for the VE Day ceremony.
Sunny and warm, but a perfect day. And these two kept us smiling the entire day.
I always love to see the veterans getting together and chatting... no longer strangers.
Two of our WWII,s.
Surprise visit from a few of my BWI Brownies!
The Vietnam Wall
Each memorial holds a special significance to me... the Vietnam Wall is no exception. For the sake of time, I'll just share one story with you from this emotional memorial...
Notes from May 12 / A highlight from Greater Peoria Honor Flight's trip on Tuesday was visiting the Vietnam wall with our Nam vets. I was able to help Archie find a few of his friends' names (many of them childhood friends)... but the most touching moment came when he told me the story of an officer of his who's name is on the wall:
It was Friday the 13th. Archie and 12 other men were on a patrol in Vietnam. Communications were poor and before he knew it they were being fired on - by their own men. They had unknowingly run into a brother unit who took them for VC. In a matter of moments, every man in his 13-man patrol was wounded, and the officer (fresh out of OTS) was killed. It is one of the tragic accidents of war, and sadly there are too many stories similar to Archie's.
Each visit to the wall is uniquely special... but this is one I will remember for a long time.
Air Force Memorial
I ended up spending the entire time at the Air Force Memorial listening as this kind and gentle man, Mr. Avery, explained to me how meaningful this whole experience had been for him. At the end of the day, as we disembarked from the plane back in Peoria, his eyes were full of tears. No words needed to translate that.
Moving forward because it's impossible to capture every moment in one blogpost (those of you who suffered through our post[s] several years ago when the girls and I were guardians for two 95 year-old Air Force vets know what I'm talking about)... The Welcome-Home.
I've never teared up at a Welcome-Home before. But I certainly did here (I'll just blame it on Mr. Avery for getting me started). I walked down the line taking photos of the countless people holding signs, cheering the veterans, hugging and kissing, thanking the veterans, the bagpipes, the families greeting their loved ones... I'm still getting chokey thinking about it.
Honestly, this was the best Welcome-Home I've ever been to. I'm not good at estimated numbers, but I can say that the entire airport terminal was packed (and I mean PACKED) with people.
The entire day was a magical one for our vets, and I'm afraid I've only been able to give you a few inadequate highlights. The work that goes into each flight is just enormous, and I can't say enough about the whole GPHF crew, who are really the heart and soul of this Honor Flight hub! And the biggest hug and thanks to Phyllis for including me!
Finally, the number one word that comes to mind with Honor Flight is Healing. Whether it is tough memories that won't fade, or possibly hard feelings over long overdue recognition, these dear men, who served our country in good times and in bad, come home with a new feeling of respect, healing, and value.