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As network grows, Honor Flights take off

Published 5/28/2011 in Special Sections

By JEROME P. CURRY

jcurry@gctelegram.com

When the Washington, D.C.-bound plane lifted off in April from Garden City Regional Airport with nearly 100 World War II veterans aboard, it was the latest chapter in the continuing saga of Honor Flight that began in May 2005 in Ohio.

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Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Visitors from the Garden City Honor Flight returned to the National World War II Memorial at night on their two-day excursion.

Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Visitors from the Garden City Honor Flight returned to the National World War II Memorial at night on their two-day excursion.

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Brad Nading/Telegram
Mike Hoffman, center, is greeted by his daughter, Deb Mader, as he returns to Garden City in April from the Honor Flight at Garden City Regional Airport.

Brad Nading/Telegram Mike Hoffman, center, is greeted by his daughter, Deb Mader, as he returns to Garden City in April from the Honor Flight at Garden City Regional Airport.

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Courtesy photo/ World War II veterans from the Garden City Honor Flight unfurl a 15-star flag at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

Courtesy photo/ World War II veterans from the Garden City Honor Flight unfurl a 15-star flag at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.

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Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Nearly 100 World War II veterans traveled from Garden City to Washington, D.C., in April to visit the nation's war memorials.

Shajia Ahmad/Telegram Nearly 100 World War II veterans traveled from Garden City to Washington, D.C., in April to visit the nation's war memorials.

Credit retired U.S. Air Force Capt. Earl Morse, who also is a physician's assistant. He wanted to honor the veterans of the greatest generation he cared for at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield, Ohio. Morse, who had retired in May 2004, really got going when the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., was finished. He knew many veterans — in their 80s or 90s, and many with disabilities — did not have the money to visit their memorial without help.

Morse found a way.

Six small planes flew out of Springfield in May 2005 taking 12 World War II veterans on a visit to the memorial.

"In August of 2005, an ever-expanding waiting list of veterans led our transition to commercial airline carriers with the goal of accommodating as many veterans as possible," according to a statement on the Honor Flight national website. "Partnering with Honor Air in Hendersonville, N.C., we formed the 'Honor Flight Network.' Today, we continue working aggressively to expand our programs to other cities across the nation."

It all started in that VA Clinic in Springfield.

In addition to being a physician assistant, Morse was also a private pilot and a member of an aero club at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

In December 2004, Morse had asked one of his World War II veteran patients if it would be OK if he personally flew him to D.C., free of charge, to visit his memorial. The patient broke down and cried. He said yes. He said he would never see the memorial otherwise. Morse posed the same question to a second World War II veteran a week later. He too cried and accepted.

It didn't take long for Morse to realize he needed help. In January 2005, Morse outlined to his aero club a volunteer program to fly veterans to the memorial. There were two major stipulations to his request. The first was that the veterans pay nothing. The entire aircraft rental ($600 to $1,200 for the day) would have to be paid by the pilots. The second was that the pilots personally escort the veterans around D.C.

Eleven pilots volunteered. Honor Flight was aloft and cruising.

So many veterans wanted to fly the commercial aircraft that were used to accommodate 40 veterans at a time, including many in wheelchairs. By the end of the first year, Honor Flight had transported 137 World War II veterans to their memorial.

In 2006, commercial flights were used for all Honor Flights. Other states joined. And the Honor Flight Network kept flying the veterans to the World War II Memorial at no cost to them.

Here's a breakdown showing the growth of the Honor Flight Network:

2005 — 137 veterans made the trip.

2006 — 891.

2007 — More than 5,000.

2008 — 11,137.

2009 — 17,832.

2010 — 22,149.

Kansas is one of those now 39 states in the national Honor Flight Network. It started in the Sunflower State in 2009.

In southwest Kansas, the coordinator is Great Bend-based Central Prairie Resource Conservation and Development, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Laveta Miller, a program assistant with Central Prairie and the group's Honor Flight coordinator, has said Central Prairie Honor Flight has flown nearly 1,000 World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., since the southwest Kansas flights to Washington started, and that was before April's flight that originated in Garden City.

More Honor Flights are expected to be in Garden City's future, but when still is unknown, she said. It was one of four scheduled this year.

The cost per veteran for the Honor Flight trip is about $650, which covers a flight, hotel, meals and ground transportation. Chaperons, often family members or relatives, are required to pay their own way to travel and assist the veterans during the trip.

The Garden City Honor Flight was the climax of a months-long fundraising drive to get the area's veterans to Washington, D.C. Donations came across the spectrum. An anonymous $25,000 gift was key. And then more dollars were collected. The Finney County 4-H clubs presented an $8,543 check from a chili supper. That donation pushed the area total to $67,727 and ensured the flight would happen, said the local co-chairs of the Honor Flight effort. At that point, they still needed $12,000 to make it happen and they got it in small and large donations.

Central Prairie Honor Flight officials estimate Kansas loses between 15 and 20 World War II veterans each day.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 900 of the 2.5 million living World War veterans — most in their 80s and 90s — die each day.

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