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A Time for Patriotism

Group Sponsors D.C. Tours for Vets

Correction Appended

Earl Morse was a physician assistant at a Veterans Administration hospital in Ohio when the National World War II Memorial finally opened in May 2004, almost 59 years after Japan surrendered.

Morse rejoiced with his patients, aging warriors who all wanted to see the monument. Yet as he kept asking them over time whether they had gone to see it, they kept saying no. The sinking look in their eyes as their lives ran out matched the sinking feeling in his heart. By that winter, Morse had decided to do what he could to get his patients to the nation’s capital before it was too late.

In January 2005, Morse contacted members of the Aero Club, a collective of current and retired military pilots who share access to planes, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. He asked them to fly World War II veterans to the capital, renting the planes themselves and charging the veterans nothing. Eleven answered his call, and a year after the monument opened they flew six small planes with 12 veterans to Washington, D.C.

In June and July they took more people, and Morse’s pride grew — until he realized they were getting more applications from veterans than they could fly.

That began the wider Honor Flight Network in operation today. The network has 78 regional hubs overseen by about 700 volunteers in 33 states, all close to airports with direct flights to a Washington airport to make the single-day trips easier on veterans.

Morse, a 21-year Air Force veteran and the son and father of veterans, can barely restrain his passion for his work.

“I started it because my personal experience is that the World War II veterans are without question the most humble, most appreciative, most stoic patriotic people you will ever meet, and here they waited 60 years to have a memorial,— he said, frustrated. “They finally have one, and there’s no way to get there.—

Today, the group flies up to 1,000 people a week to Washington to see the monuments but offers fewer trips during the summer heat and none at all in the winter. In 2008, the group transported more than 11,000 veterans and about 5,000 guardians to accompany them. Morse estimated that he has gone on 80 honor flights.

The flights aren’t limited to World War II veterans or even veterans who have a monument to visit, but priority is given to those with a limited amount of time to live. The group has a waiting list of 6,000 to 8,000 veterans who want to come to D.C.

“Our organization hasn’t figured out yet which veterans do not deserve to see their memorial,— Morse said.

On Wednesday, the group on the second honor flight of the day arrived at the World War II Memorial at 4:30 p.m. Though the Honor Flight Network encourages group leaders to take veterans to as many memorials as they can (a policy implemented after a World War II veteran asked to see his son’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall), this group had time only for Arlington National Cemetery and the World War II Memorial.

Bill Ahrens, director of Honor Flight Tri-State, based in Cincinnati, puffed on his cigarette as he waited for the 40 veterans and 15 guardians to load back on the bus. Ahrens, an Army veteran, said this was his 11th honor flight, and the 12th is in the works for July. He said 282 veterans remain on his waiting list.

This group began the day in West Chester, Ohio, at 9 a.m. There they loaded a bus and drove about 45 minutes to the Dayton airport, watching a Public Broadcasting Service documentary on the memorial and getting to know each other.

They took an AirTran flight to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and boarded a bus for Arlington, Va. There, Ahrens selected one veteran from each branch to help place a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Vito Sylvester, 86, who served in Europe during World War II, said laying the wreath on the tomb was the highlight of his day. He was chosen to represent the Army.

“I must tell you, except for my wife’s passing, it was probably the most emotional thing I’ve ever done in my life,— he said.

From there, the group went to the World War II Memorial and spent just an hour there. Before the sun had set, they had eaten dinner at the Old Country Buffet in Laurel, Md., and were on their way to catch a 9:20 p.m. flight back to Dayton, on track for a midnight arrival in West Chester.

This was a sparse trip; in addition to seeing some of the other monuments, other honor flight participants have gotten USO send-offs in the morning and a big welcome home at the airport at night. Many, including Ahrens on previous trips, meet former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) at the memorial while they’re there.

Morse said Dole “has the right idea.— The former Senator’s staff calls the Honor Flight Network a month in advance to plan his schedule around the arrival of his fellow veterans at the memorial.

Dole “shows up, and he just welcomes his peers and his colleagues to their memorial,— Morse said. “He doesn’t give speeches. He just welcomes them.—

Dole isn’t the only Member of Congress to take an interest in the veterans. The group has an honorary Congressional advisory board. The 11 Members encourage their colleagues to get involved and greet veterans when they can. Morse called the involvement of advisory board member Rep. Jeff Miller’s (R-Fla.) staff “incredible.—

Miller has been closely involved with Emerald Coast Honor Flight, based in his district. He first found out about the national nonprofit when he and his wife ran into Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) at the memorial on a Saturday two years ago, and Boustany told them about the group of veterans he was meeting.

Miller, whose father served in the Navy during World War II, said the hub in his district has organized four trips. He said one of the best parts of their visits is seeing the older generation impart wisdom to younger ones, both at the monument and in Florida.

“I always say that it is a great opportunity for the latest generation to meet the greatest generation,— he said.

Morse stresses the urgency of getting the World War II veterans to the memorial. The youngest World War II veteran, a 17-year-old who got parental permission to join at the end of the war, would be more than 80 years old by now.

Morse said that in 2007 the Department of Veterans Affairs and Arlington Cemetery estimated that 1,200 World War II veterans died every day; he estimated that in 10 years there will be very few of them left, but even then the mission to bring veterans to receive their country’s gratitude will remain.

When he travels to the capital with veterans, Morse likes to point out the World War II Memorial’s location between the two monuments, Washington and Lincoln, that celebrate the birth and rebirth of the nation. Beyond that, though, he keeps it simple.

“Welcome to your memorial,— he tells them.

Correction: June 29, 2009

The article incorrectly reported the number of veterans that the group Honor Flight Network typically flies in to Washington, D.C. It is about 1,000 a week.

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