The day before Veterans Day 2006, Charles ”Chuck“ Stoner of Wilmore drove to Dayton, Ohio, so he could be at the airport early the next morning.
He was scheduled to join other World War II veterans as they traveled, free, to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., courtesy of Honor Flight Network.
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”There were 50 of us from Dayton and another 50 from Columbus, and we met in Washington,“ Stoner, 82, said. ”It was great. All of them were World War II veterans like myself. We talked about what outfit we were in and where we served. We had something in common.“
Back then, he said, he was the only veteran from Kentucky on the flight.
That's not the case anymore.
On May 21, the third anniversary of the Honor Flight Network, Kentucky launched its first Honor Flight out of Louisville International Airport. There have been two other flights since then.
Brian Duffy, director of the Louisville-based Honor Flight Bluegrass Chapter, said organizing the flight ”is a huge undertaking, a labor of love. It takes some time.“
Duffy, an Air Force veteran and assistant chief pilot for UPS, said he became involved with the flights after meeting Honor Flight founder Earl Morse.
Morse was a physician's assistant at a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield, Ohio, when the memorial in Washington was completed in 2004.
He began asking veterans whether they planned to visit the site. Most couldn't afford to go or didn't have a way to get there.
An Air Force veteran and pilot, Morse offered to take one veteran along on a plane trip he had planned with his father. The man cried.
Morse began asking other veterans if they were interested in visiting the memorial. When it became apparent how many wanted to go, he asked fellow pilots to provide rides, with the stipulation that the entire trip would be free to veterans.
The first Honor Flight, involving six small planes and 12 veterans, flew out of Springfield in May 2005.
A year later, because of demand, the program began using commercial airlines to ferry the veterans.
Tom O'Neal, bookkeeper for the national organization, said about 11,000 veterans have been transported since that small beginning. The network now boasts about 70 hubs in 31 states.
World War II veterans are getting up in years, and many are dying before they get a chance to visit the memorial built to recognize their efforts in Europe, Asia and here in the United States.
Each flight, which leaves and returns within 24 hours, includes guardians, who are attentive to the needs of the veterans. There are medical professionals on board, plus any necessary medical equipment.
Scooters or wheelchairs are available to those for whom walking is difficult.
On a typical trip, Duffy said, the group meets at the airport about two hours before departure on Southwest Airlines. When they land in Baltimore, a motor coach, complete with box lunches, takes them to Washington.
They arrive at the memorial about 1 p.m., often greeted by former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole.
About two hours later, they reboard the coaches for brief stops at the Korean War Memorial and the Marine Corps War Memorial, in which six men are raising the American flag at Iwo Jima, located next to Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington.
From there, the group travels to a buffet to eat.
”You really see an opening and sharing of stories,“ Duffy said. ”And tears can be seen in the corner of their eyes.“
Then they go back to the airport to return to Louisville.
Duffy said he has heard from veterans' friends and relatives that when the veterans get back, they begin to open up with stories of their military service that had long been hidden.
”They are such a noble, stoic, reserved generation,“ he said. ”It is really their fault that it took so long to get a World War II Memorial.
”That was the last thing on their minds, wanting a memorial for what they did.“
Fighting in the war was simply something they needed to do for their country, Stoner said. When the veterans returned, they just wanted to get on with their lives.
”We came out of the Army and we were ready to go,“ Stoner said. ”We all came out with the ability — at least we thought we could do it — to be in business for ourselves or hold down a good job. I did. I owe it all to my experience in the Army.“
Duffy said veterans should download the application for the flight at www.honorflightbluegrass.com. Family members are not allowed to go because of space limitations.
But more guardians are needed. They physically assist the veterans at the airport, during the flight and at the memorials. Guardians are responsible for their own expenses.
Also, information about donating to the cause can be found at the Web site.
The flights, which cost about $275 for each veteran, are possible through donations, but not from World War II veterans.
”Some insist and send money anyway,“ Duffy said. ”We politely return it. We want this to be a gift. If they are paying for it, it is not a gift.“
The group did receive $25,000 from the Kentucky Veterans Trust Fund, which helped get the state chapter off the ground.
Duffy said he has about 122 veterans on a waiting list. There are two more flights scheduled this year, on Sept. 10 and Oct. 8; there might be a third in November.
Then the flights are halted until spring.
Stoner recommends the trip to all World War II veterans who are able to go. ”If they can get on it, get on it,“ he said. ”Before we're all gone, they'd like us to see the monument.“