I wrote previously about the Honor Flight I took, the mechanics of the program, and how to help. But now, I want to reflect on what I saw and why it’s so important.
*Editorial Note: The Honor Flight of Council Bluffs and the Kanesville Honor Guard/Wake Foundation invited me to participate in this event and was fully aware of my coverage as were the veterans. While some photographs at sensitive moments may feel invasive, participants consented to their image and use on this platform.
Council Bluffs, Iowa’s First Honor Flight
I was invited to join the very first Honor Flight from Council Bluffs, Iowa, a neighboring city to my hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. I outlined what the Honor Flight Network is in this prior post, if you’re unfamiliar, I encourage you to read that first. It was the mission of the Kanesville Honor Guard to take veterans to Washington DC to visit the memorials built to honor their service and sacrifices.
The prior evening, a send-off event was held. At this event, available for both the veterans and their caretakers, the Lieutenant Governors of both Iowa and Nebraska (Council Bluffs, Iowa borders Omaha, Nebraska) to speak in support on behalf of both states. The two were eloquent and cordial with each other and the group, it was a tremendous sign of common support for a cause both could get behind.
This initiative was a major one for the Kanesville Honor Guard. In addition to its other work (mentioned below) the group provides free funerals for veterans who can’t afford them with military honors. To date, more than 600 free funeral services have been performed by the group.
“Kanesville has recently formed a group called Focus on the Veterans that is actively involved in the battling of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD continues to torment veterans for many years after their war time battle has ended. Kanesville Honor Guard has retained the services of a Professionally Licensed Counselor that has been helping Veterans and First Responders for over 30 years. Kanesville Honor Guard offers counseling sessions to the Veterans and First Responderss at no charge.” – Scott Stewart, Kanesville Honor Guard.
Their work has been recognized by the Governor of the state of Iowa who issued a plaque in their honor. The mayor of Council Bluffs, Matt Walsh, has been supportive of the Kanesville Honor Guard and was able to join the trip.
Departing from nearby Omaha, more than 50 vets and their caretakers boarded a United flight connecting in Chicago and then continued our trip to Washington DC.
Flying was a particularly interesting though small segment of the journey. Some of the vets had not been on an airplane since returning from war in 1973. Considering just how much flying has changed in the last two years, the difference over a 50-year stretch must have been dramatic for some.
When I think of veterans, I think of a specific era, the Vietnam War. While many on our trip were from that tour of service, others served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. For this writer, Vietnam was a war from a prior generation, and I incorrectly associated the struggles of veterans with that conflict. Listening to the stories of more recent battles was jarring.
This Kanesville Honor Guard that raised tens of thousands of dollars for this Honor Flight works with those returning home with PTSD. These warriors face issues in crowds, large noises, and even what could be considered minimal stress to a civilian such as myself can be enough to send them reeling.
Counseling PTSD victims has become a core issue for soldiers returning home but so are other very basic issues many of us take for granted. Finding jobs, affordable housing, and getting the care they need and deserve from the Veterans Administration add complications to an already difficult adjustment.
One of our first stops was at the Marine War Memorial. For those who served in this branch, this was particularly important. The memorial represents every conflict whereby the Marines played a role; Afghanistan and Iraq were recently added to the statue. The towering monument is from the battle at Iwo Jima, Japan in World War II, and the men represented in the sculpture are a diverse group. Many in our group shared stories of the fellow members they served with, their variety of backgrounds, and locations from disparate parts of the country. They fought side-by-side and race, religion, and creed were unimportant.
One of the stories from a more recent conflict, the second Iraq war, resonated with me as someone who saw the war unfold from the safety and comfort of middle America. Robert Wake, the namesake of the Wake Foundation he created for veterans and helped support Kanesville’s effort, told of being trapped on a Baghdad rooftop with a fellow soldier. Unable to move positions for more than 18 hours, the two of them held their location despite heavy fire from opposition forces. His partner on that mission died on the rooftop and Wake, a purple heart recipient, made his way across the city to safety despite serious injuries to himself and shrapnel that still plagues him to this day.
For many on our trip, it was just as important to see memorials dedicated to honoring veterans of other wars as it was their own. While we didn’t have any World War II veterans nor those from the Korean war on our trip, these were still conflicts that impacted their lives. Seeing their reactions as we paced through the exhibits created reverence that could only be met by the same reaction for those who had not served such as myself.
Visiting Arlington National Cemetery was a humbling experience. Vets from our trip admired the precision and care with which the sentinels treated the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Walking through Arlington National puts into perspective just how many have served and died for this country. Its sheer size is moving, dotted with seemingly endless white headstones over the rolling green grass hills. Nothing I’ve encountered could prepare me for seeing veterans walking through the headstones looking for friends and family to pay their respects.
Our visit included the United States Air Force Memorial with three steel spires resembling the Air Force Thundbirds contrails in their bomb blast formation.
The Vietnam Memorial Wall
While members of our party had lost friends and relatives in other conflicts, the Vietnam war vets remained some of the most heartbreaking cases. Not only for their difficult tours of duty but also because of the reception they received when returning home from war. It remains a terribly painful ordeal for them to this day.
As we approached the Vietnam Memorial Wall, a somber state of affairs took over our group and those around us. Visually, it’s a compelling memorial for its simplicity. But as you see wrinkled fingers glide along its surface, there’s another toll. Some never came home, and their chiseled names etched into black granite are a permanent reminder of the horrors of war.
One of the most stoic veterans among us ambled toward the wall. He’d reached the segment where he had a name and approached.
In what may be the most somber and caring job in America, a member of the Park Service knelt down to shade a charcoal imprint, a journey the vet’s knees couldn’t make. They exchanged words, no smiles, no hugs, all business. And then the man helped him with another, and another.
When it was through, he looked down at his hands and the charcoal shaded paper slips each with a white cavity of their names. The imprints were much like the men themselves, all he had left was what surrounded them, but the people in the middle were absent. All that remained of his neighbor, a friend from boy scouts, and a man in his unit were three pieces of paper. There was a finality, a resolution that heretofore had eluded him. There was closure as he pointed to where they were on the wall, solemnly, as the moment consumed him.
I’ve been involved with few veteran events in the past and being able to take part in this Honor Flight was a privilege. To hear from those who served, who described traumatic events as a matter of course, is humbling. Their service, the sacrifices they have made and those of their fellow soldiers, some not fortunate enough to come home gives me pause. Memorials were beautiful stone monuments to me before the trip, but following, the bronze faces, carved names, and white headstones became faces I recognized, faces that were all around me. “Thank you for your service” can be a polite but hollow greeting to a serviceman but after witnessing their impressions, hearing their stories, and pacing the marble grounds with them, it holds a far more substantial meaning to me now.