Indy’s Honor Flight Shows Veterans Love & Gratitude
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
From 1942–1945, Rupert Smith, 99, served in the Army Air Corps (USAAC), the military aviation arm of the USA. Just 23 years old when he joined the service, Smith was stationed in England for two months, North Africa for a year, then spent the rest of his time working late evenings in Italy loading bombs on B-24 liberators.
“Our group called ourselves the Liberandos,” Smith says. “The planes would go out in the morning, and we didn’t know how many were coming back.”
When he returned from war, Smith married a beautiful woman named Geraldine, who passed away in 2003. They have one daughter (Wanda), a grandson (Matthew), and two great-grandchildren (Cameron and Adalyn).
On September 7, 2013, Smith took part in the third-ever Honor Flight out of Indianapolis. The Indy Honor Flight began in 2012. It’s part of a national organization that started in 2005 with more than 130 hubs nationwide, covering 43 states. The purpose of the program is to honor veterans by taking them on a one-day trip to Washington, DC, to visit the memorials they inspired.
Any veteran who served actively during times of conflict is eligible to participate in the day’s events at no cost to them. The organization provides all transportation and meals for the day. The program, which is 100 percent staffed by volunteers and 100 percent funded by donations, relies on dedicated individuals who wish to support the mission of granting veterans this extraordinary day in the nation’s capital. Since the inception of the Indy Honor Flight, nearly 1,700 veterans have participated in this special day.
“We don’t require overseas or combat service to be able to participate. Regardless of whether they served stateside or worked as a clerk or a cook, we don’t care,” says Dale True, Chairman of the Indy Honor Flight program. “Service is service, and we treat them all the same.”
Because veterans are chosen in order of age and conflict, those who served in World War II and Korea are given top priority as most of them are now in their 90s. Each of the 89 veterans on board is assigned a guardian to escort them for the day. They also travel with paramedics, support staff and professional photographers who capture these once-in-a-lifetime memories.
Veterans spend the day touring the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials. They also drive past the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Airforce Memorial and then wrap the day at the Arlington National Cemetery for the Changing of the Guard. If traffic allows, they do a driving tour of downtown DC, which includes the White House and Capital Buildings, before flying home that night.
“When we got to Washington, D.C., there was a live band and 300 people there to greet us,” Smith says. “Then we turned the corner and there was another 300.”
Washington has a slew of volunteers to help with the honor flights. Not only do they have folks greet veterans at the airport, but they also have people at the memorials who do re-enactments. Plus, strangers often approach the veterans to offer hugs and handshakes.
“I’ve seen Korean families tearfully thank the Korean veterans for their freedom,” True says. “I’ve also seen little boys and girls throw their arms around a veteran. It’s very touching.”
In the case of the World War II veterans, it’s been 75 years since they served. When they go to D.C. and see these memorials, they realize they were a part of something bigger than themselves.
Some of the men who travel to Washington are housed in assisted living facilities and don’t get out much.
“When you get back from one of these trips and you have a 95-year-old person tell you they’ve had one of the best days of their life, that’s very meaningful,” True says. “There’s an enormous amount of logistical and volunteer work that goes into planning, but it’s so worth it.”
The program’s worthiness really hits home when one hears about the conversations that frequently follow the completion of an Honor Flight.
“We’ve had wives tell us, ‘I’ve been married to this man for 70 years and he’s never said a word about the war,’” True says.
Saddled with dark demons and painful memories, many of these veterans have remained silent for decades. This experience, however, enables them to open up and share their stories. While the day is healing, it’s also designed to honor and celebrate humble heroes and their many sacrifices.
Veterans put their lives on hold to serve their country — missing holidays and celebrations, sometimes even the birth of a child due to deployment. But what was different for these men is that when they served they didn’t have satellite phone, Wifi or Skyping capabilities. They stayed in touch with their families via snail mail.
“These guys came home from war and got to work. They didn’t get a ticker tape parade,” True says. “The Honor Flight is an opportunity for us — the community — to say thank you.”
Each veteran receives a polo shirt and a hat that identifies them with their particular conflict. The organization also creates a poster of each veteran’s service that includes a picture of them in uniform from the time they served and one of them on the day of the Honor Flight.
Indy Honor Flights fly three times a year, in the spring and fall, so they don’t have to contend with frigid, icy weather in the winter or hot, humid conditions in the summer.
“We want these guys to be comfortable,” True says. “You’ve got to remember that the average age of a World War II veteran is now 92 or 93 years old.”
This year’s fall flights are slated for September 9 and October 21. Spring dates will be set early next year.
Smith, for one, is thrilled his daughter signed him up for Indy’s Honor Flight.
“That was my first trip to Washington, and I’ll never forget it,” Smith says. “When we got back to the Indianapolis airport that night, I’ll bet there were 5,000 people there. I got so many hugs and kisses, I didn’t wash my face for a week.”
For more information about the Indy Honor Flight or to download applications for veterans or volunteers, visit indyhonorflight.org.