Honor Flight is touching tribute for aging veterans

Published May 6, 2018 at 9:00am

Take a moment to think about this: one day, you’re a fresh out of high school 18-years-old. After weeks of training, you’re being sent to a country you can’t spell or find on a map. Okinawa, Guam, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Korea, Taiwan, Saipan, Tinian. Or... you don’t even know where you’re being sent.

On April 28, a cold, wet and dark Saturday morning, I had the honor of accompanying 80 men and women who lived that story on Honor Flight Syracuse Mission #11.

Honor Flight Syracuse is one of 130 regional hubs in the National Honor Flight Network. The non-profit organization’s mission is to honor America’s veterans – providing them free Washington D.C trips to see and reflect at their memorials. Since 2012, Honor Flight Syracuse has served veterans from the greater Syracuse area – covering ten counties in Central NY, Northern NY and the Mohawk Valley.

Priority order for each mission is given to WWII veterans, Korean War and terminally ill veterans from any era. Mission #11 was comprised of 28 WW II vets, 46 Korean War vets and six Cold War vets.

I pulled into Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport’s parking lot at 5 a.m. I was thinking I’d be early, but the lot was already pretty full. A short escalator ride to the terminal’s second level put me right in the middle of the Mission #11 landing area. Here I received my required mission uniform: a blue T-shirt, name tag and boarding pass.

Everyone on the mission wears a specific color T-shirt - not only to make a fashion statement but to also be easily seen in the inevitable D.C. crowds. No one gets left behind and a memorial. Blue is for Honor Flight staff (which includes bus captains, members of media and medical staff). Red is for the veterans. Yellow is for mission volunteers and neon green is for the mission “Guardians” — each vet is assigned a Guardian to help them through the long, emotional day.

The smell of morning coffee and baked goods along with excited conversation filled the air. A few vets were already assembled — some walking around, others in wheelchairs munching away on doughnuts. Many wear baseball hats displaying the military branch they served in or ships they sailed on. Others opt for the colors of their favorite sports team – the guy wearing the Yankees cap may become my best friend by the end of the day.

Once everyone is checked in and in uniform we board the plane and hit the open sky. The Patriot Guard riders of American Legion Post 787 of Cicero were at the gate with American flags raised giving the vets a patriotic early morning send off. The level of respect these men and women were shown would only increase as the day progressed. I’m already emotional... I can only imagine what the vets are feeling.

We land at Reagan National Airport around 8 a.m. My window seat allowed me to see the ground crew throwing thumbs up at the plane and waving small flags as we taxied in to the gate. Two fire trucks sprayed an arch of water over our plane as a salute – an airport’s way of showing respect to arriving or departing veterans.

They knew we were coming. Man, did they know we were coming.

The staff left the plane first. As I walked up the causeway I could hear faint, but lively, music. I was thinking “Hmmm...Reagan National must be a hip place to land. “

“Wow, it’s really loud.” Guess who it was for?

Hundreds of people, along with an acapella signing group lined the path out of the gate. There were so many flags and homemade signs waving around it was difficult so see the other side of the terminal. And I’m walking through this... they’re cheering for me! Hands extend to shake mine...it was unreal. It was at this point I developed the first of multiple lumps in my throat. It was hard not to.

The vets were visibly moved. Everyone in the welcoming crowd wanted to shake their hands or pat them on the back. Several version of the phrase “Thank you for your service” punctuated the cheers and bars of acapella music. To wear a red shirt on the television show Star Trek was a sign you weren’t going to make it to the end credits. Today, wearing a red shirt means you were going to be honored like you’ve never been honored before.

Four buses were waiting for us outside the terminal. I was assigned to bus #3. I cannot begin to stress how great the volunteer staff, and especially the nurses (eight accompanied the mission), were – especially with the mobility-challenged vets. They made sure everyone was where they needed to be and had what they needed to have.

I also need to mention that our buses were provided a police escort throughout the day. That makes a big difference when maneuvering though traffic in our nation’s capitol. Big difference.

Our first stop was the National World War II Memorial. Flanked by the Washington Monument to the east and the Lincoln Memorial to the west, it offers historic views in every direction.

We arrive under a foggy, overcast sky. The sound of the fountain drowns out almost everything. It’s a little before 10 a.m. and already hundreds of visitors are milling through the grounds. People of all ages and races together. Complete strangers treated the vets as if they were YouTube celebrities. Korean War Army vet and Roman Senatro J. “Ernie” Iuorno was shocked by all the attention. “ It was so nice. Little kids and older people kept wanting to shake my hand and thank me. Very emotional.”

By the end of our visit the fog gave way to a beautiful blue sky. Even the weather wanted to make sure the vets had a good day.

Next on the itinerary were the Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Because a majority of our vets served in Korea, the Korean War Memorial is where a majority of them went. No matter where you saw a red shirt, you saw someone thanking them.

Despite an average age 92, and being a little tired, the vets were having the time of their lives. My feet were hurting a little, but considering everything they’ve gone through in war and beyond, I chose to keep that info to myself.

After a brief 15-minute visit to the United States Air Force Memorial we arrive at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, our last stop.

The vets were given a front row view of the changing of the guard at the Tomb. The “Old Guard” well-known for their regimented changing ceremony. They are not able to stop and engage anyone, unless that someone is being loud or disrespectful - in which case, watch out. But, they do have a special way of acknowledgement. When seeing the Honor Flight red shirts, they subtly drag a heel on the concrete...momentarily breaking their traditional step. I was told later the Guard only do that for veterans.

A group photo, and one more bus ride past the Marine Corp (a.k.a. Iwo Jima) Memorial and we were back at the airport. There weren’t any crowds assembled or bands playing... just a throng of tired people enjoying the last moments of a one-in-a-lifetime trip.

On the plane ride home, the vets were treated to an old-fashioned military mail call. Staff pulled out several green duffle bags filled with brown envelopes. I had no idea what was happening... but the tired vets lit right up.

One of those tired vets explained the significance to me.

“I don’t know if you were in the military, but mail call in the Army was a big deal.” remarked “Ernie” Iuorno. It was a little bit of comfort when you were stationed so far away from home.

Iuorno, along with the other 79 vets, each got a personalized pack of mail. Cards and letters from family and friends, notes from school kids and clubs. A few months prior to the mission, Honor Flight volunteers contact family members and towns of every vet, asking for mail they then could give the vets on mail call.

They were all completely surprised... which I guess was the whole point. Just another bit of gratitude in a long day of thanks.

Another rousing welcome and party were waiting for the vets back in Syracuse.

The Honor Flight Syracuse was one of six Honor Flights in Washington that day. I don’t know about the other five, but if they all ended on as high a note as this one there were a lot of happy veterans out there.

I think Ernie summed it up perfectly...

“I slept well Saturday night.”

For more information on how you can donate or know of a local veteran who would like to apply for an Honor Flight seat, go to http://honorflightsyracuse.org/.