‘A Spring in Their Step’: Final Honor Flight for WWII, Korean Vets Awaits

T-shirts, bags and lanyards are prepared for packing.  Photo by Chris Stone
T-shirts, bags and lanyards are prepared for packing in this weekend’s Honor Flight to Washington, DC Photo by Chris Stone

Thirty-eight cents – plus the pocket lint attached – may not seem a significant donation. But to Dave Smith, that 8-year-old’s offering was “just wonderful.”

Smith, founder and past chairman of Honor Flight San Diego, had a car show booth to collect money for the organization when the son of a service member offered those 38 cents.

Smith loved the gesture.

Honor Flight San Diego leaves Friday on its latest three-day journey designed for World War II and Korean War veterans to visit military monuments in Washington, DC It is the last one specifically for veterans of those wars because they have reached the end of the long list of those who served in those conflicts wishing to go.

Since 2010, the group has escorted nearly 1,500 veterans from San Diego County on what they call a trip of a lifetime.

Two days after the current trip, Honor Flight Network will celebrate sending more than 250,000 nationwide on their tours.

People who want to greet the veterans Sunday upon their return to San Diego International Airport need to park off-site at 851 Harbor Island Drive, which is free, and take a shuttle to the terminal.

Shuttle service starts at 11:30 am It is recommend people arrive no later than 12:30 pm Look for signs and balloons on Harbor Drive.

On the charter flight will be nine veterans who served in World War II, 73 in Korea, two or three in Vietnam (with terminal illnesses) and two 100 or older. In September, the focus turns to Navy Seawolves for the first group from the Vietnam War.

With each of the two flights a year costing 250,000, the 501 (c) (3) nonprofit is in constant fundraising mode.

In addition to small donations such as the young boy’s, major corporations and individuals have donated “phenomenal amounts of money,” Smith said.

All of the money goes toward allowing the veterans to make connections to fellow service members on the tour – and their lost brethren.

“And again, all the veterans go at no cost to them,” said Julie Brightwell, chairperson for Honor Flight San Diego. “We figure it’s the least we can do to say thank you for your service.”

Smith and Brightwell had a fire lit under them after they each accompanied their fathers on an Honor Flight.

Moved by the experience, they wanted to do more.

Smith, now 70, told the national network that he would like to volunteer for the San Diego hub.

“And (a network official) says, ‘Well, you don’t have one (a hub).'” “Oh, and I said, ‘Well, we’re gonna have one now,'” said Smith, born in Michigan.

Smith spoke with his network of friends, law enforcement, military and business connections, and they founded the local hub. In October 2010, the first Honor Flight San Diego flight carried only 10 veterans. Since then, the organization has flown nearly 1,500 vets to the nation’s capital.

Family members are encouraged to be guardians – a person who looks after all the needs of their vet during the trip. If one is not available, a volunteer guardian is at their side.

“The growth within families is one of the most important things,” said the founder. “They’re seeing a whole different part of their family’s life that in many cases they weren’t aware of.”

The second important result of the journeys involves the veterans’ psyches. Many military members from past wars are suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“That wasn’t the mission of this,” Smith said. It’s not gonna take it away, but it will impact and they realize other folks are going through this same situation. So you see some camaraderie along that line. ”

In addition, veterans may reconnect with military buddies or someone they went to high school with. That leads to friendship going forward, said Smith, a former national chairman of the 130-hub Honor Flight network.

On walls at the World War II Memorial in the nation’s capital are more than 4,000 golden stars. Each star represents 100 American military deaths.

Smith, who has served as support on each Honor Flight San Diego, said he would watch veterans at that memorial, “and they’ll be pausing and looking at that and you can see that they’re remembering their friends that are represented on that. wall. And this gives them time to reflect and honor those. ”

He said the moment is a chance to let veterans know they’re supported and cared about.

“I can tell you – I’ve done this many times, and it still brings a tear to my eye,” Smith said. “You can see people get some closure.”

Lisa Gary, who along with her husband will lead one of four groups on the trip, appreciates seeing them all together – and just “seeing the smiles on their faces”. You know, they might say ‘Oh, I was in that battalion’ or ‘I was in that squadron.’ “

Chairperson Brightwell said veterans “get a spring in their step. They open up. “

Those in their 90s and 100s have lost so many friends and family members, she said, adding: “These connections at that age are what really make the difference.”

Veterans tell her the flight changed their lives. Spouses report the same.

“All of a sudden they feel more engaged,” Brightwell said. “You know that there’s people out there that actually are thanking them for their service, which they never knew… before that people cared.”

Holly Shaffner, local Honor Flight vice chair and public relations director, recalls a veteran who, after his wife passed, had little motivation to live.

“He was basically ready to die,” she said.

The veteran accepted an offer to go on Honor Flight. Eleven years later, he is telling his war stories and is active in the community and in the organization, Shaffner said.

On the flight to DC veterans receive letters from family members and strangers, including community members, school groups and Scout troops. The letters express gratitude for their service and well wishes for the journey.

Said Gary: “To see them read the mail that they get from people is just so emotional for them. I mean, some of them are like: ‘I’ve never been acknowledged like this before.’ And… ‘Can you believe it? I got 25 letters from my family. I didn’t know they thought I was this special. ‘”

The support of active military – from cadets to commanders – in San Diego means a lot to Smith.

“They all jump in and help and they support us,” Smith said. “And when we come back to San Diego after our trip, looking at all of the active duty military in their uniforms, greeting us, it really makes us even more special. We’ll have about 1,000 people at the airport. “

For more information on the return celebration, see the website.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” Smith said. He appreciates being in the position to make the visits possible as a way to say thank you.

And Smith wants to make it clear that it’s not just a journey of sorrow.

“We want to pay respect when it’s time to pay respect,” he said. “But we also want to celebrate those who have given us the freedoms that we have today. And so it’s a very upbeat weekend. “

Although the group is pivoting to Vietnam War veterans in the fall, any WWII or Korean War veterans who still wish to take their flight will get top priority. However, the September flight is already filled.

People interested in contributing towards a veteran’s flight can donate here.

The Times of San Diego is accompanying Honor Flight this weekend. First in a series.




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