By: Jackie Bain
Earlier this year, Jeff and Autumn and I had a conversation about my motivations and passions outside of the law. We all knew that I was professionally passionate about compliance but they didn’t know that I’ve been personally passionate about veterans and their stories since I was in college. I majored in European history and concentrated on modern history including, of course, World War II. The final for one class was to write the story of someone who lived through the war, whether in military service or on the home front. I’ve been hooked on seeking out veterans’ personal stories of the war ever since.
A couple of years ago, a friend went on her first Honor Flight, and its something I’ve wanted to do ever since. Honor Flight’s primary purpose is to honor our veterans by taking them to visit their war memorials in Washington D.C. Honor Flight was founded by Earl Morse, Physician Assistant and Retired Air Force Captain who worked in a Department of Veteran Affairs clinic in Springfield, OH. When the World War II Memorial opened in 2004, Earl asked one of his patients who had served in World War II if he would be visiting his memorial. He was disheartened to learn that the vet couldn’t afford to travel to his memorial. Earl also happened to be an amateur pilot, and arranged for several small planes to transport his patient and his comrades to the memorial erected to honor them. Now, 14 years later, Honor Flight has hubs all over the nation and a waiting list of 35,000 World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans waiting for their chance to fly. The flights are entirely free for veterans.
Jeff and Autumn offered for the firm to sponsor me to serve as a guardian on a local Honor Flight. Because veterans of these wars are aging, Honor Flight arranges for each to have a guardian to ensure safety and companionship throughout the day. Of course, I accepted the firm’s offer. I knew the day would make a huge mark on my life, and I was right.
Honor Flight assigned me to be the guardian of Charles West, a Navy veteran who enlisted in 1951, during the Korean War. I met Charles and his wife Bert for lunch about a week prior to the flight. They are a lovely couple who, unbeknownst to me, were celebrating their anniversary on the day we met.
On the day of the Honor Flight, I picked Charles up at 3:30 a.m. and we arrived at Palm Beach International Airport around 4:15. We checked in, had photos taken, and were greeted by a local honor guard and veteran motorcycle club. Our plane of 80 veterans landed at Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, VA a little after 8:00 a.m. From there we were taken by police escort to Arlington Cemetery to witness a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. We were given priority seating for the event, and the guards paid their respect for the veterans the only way they can, by scuffing their boots as they pass by.
We were escorted to the Knights of Columbus in Arlington for lunch and then to the Air Force Memorial for a group photo. If you haven’t been to the Air Force Memorial, you must go. It’s a beautiful memorial with an amazing view of Washington D.C.
From there, we traveled to the main show. Our escort transported us to the World War II Memorial. We were lucky enough to meet Senator Bob Dole at the Memorial, who was central to the memorial coming to pass, and spends many weekends there meeting and speaking with veterans like himself. Charles and I found the pillar dedicated to Florida and then continued to the Korea War Memorial, just a short, windy walk away.
The Korea War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War”, sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam, and competing with McCarthyism on the home front. The Korean War sprung from the Chinese Civil War and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, at a time when communism was spreading around the world. Korea had been split into two states, and North Korea (with the support of China and the Soviet Union) invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. The United Nations Security Council authorized the dispatch of UN forces to Korea and the United States provided around 90% of the military personnel. The fighting ended on 27 July 1953, when an armistice was signed. The United States had lost more than 35,000 soldiers. That armistice still stands today, a delicate balance that continues to govern how the world interacts with Korea.
While the fighting in the east continued, the Navy shipped Charles and his aircraft carrier the USS Midway to Northern Europe in an attempt to quell the spread of communism there. The USS Midway participated in Exercise Mainbrace, a 12 day operation in 1952 where the United States and 9 other navies attempted to convince Norway and Denmark that they could be defended against attack from the Soviet Union. The Exercise was successful. After careful examination, Charles found an aircraft carrier etched into the wall of the Korean War Memorial and we took a photo of him underneath it.
After our time in D.C., our plane landed back at Palm Beach International Airport at 7:30 on Saturday evening. I’m sure that every veteran and guardian on the plane was exhausted. I sure was. However, what was waiting for us at the airport was incredible. Over 2,000 local people gathered to welcome our veterans home. There were bands playing, ROTC and cub scout troops, families, cheerleaders, friends and strangers. It was a beautiful display of respect and honor for those who truly deserve it. It was the first time all day that I lost my composure.
I dropped Charles off back to his wife at home and slept most of the next 24 hours. When Jeff and Autumn asked me how it went, I told them that I can’t wait to do it again. The day is peppered with emotions and surprises that I can’t mention here, but it is truly a worthwhile experience and one that I will remember for the rest of my life.