A Day of Appreciation, Reflection and Remembrance

by Sandra Rossetti Mitchell
Photography by Bruce Brown

Inside the General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport, a large crowd is cheering. Flags, signs and balloons are waving; bands and bagpipers are playing; a military honor guard stands at attention. Are they all here to honor the President of the United States or some other visiting dignitary?

That question is answered when a long line of military veterans—some walking, but many pushed in wheelchairs—begin making their way through the airport. As they pass by, the cheering reaches a fever pitch and the applause, salutes and handshakes begin. With tears of emotion on both sides, it’s difficult to tell who is more moved: the veterans or those who have come to honor them.

Honor Flight in Peoria
This Welcome Home celebration—repeated many times a year in cities across the U.S.—is the culmination of a day-long thank you to veterans known as Honor Flight. The National Honor Flight Network was formed in 2005 to thank vets from all branches of the military for their service and sacrifice by flying them to Washington, DC, to visit all the war memorials and monuments. Veterans pay nothing for this day of respect and honor.

For some, it may be the first “thank you” they have ever received. Tom Gardner, a former U.S. Marine from Pekin, says that back when he returned from Vietnam, he was shocked by all the anti-war demonstrators at the airport—but throughout his Honor Flight, his group received cheers and applause wherever they went.

The Greater Peoria Honor Flight is one of about 130 hubs of the National Honor Flight organization, including seven others in Illinois. Upon recruiting volunteers and raising enough money to get started, the Peoria hub made its first flight in 2013. Since then, they have made 14 flights (three per year), transporting more than 1,000 area veterans to our nation’s capital. Nationwide, more than 200,000 veterans have been on an Honor Flight.

Phyllis Piraino, vice president of the Peoria hub’s executive board, emphasizes that everyone involved in the program is a volunteer, dedicated to sending as many veterans as possible to Washington while they are still able to go.

The Guardians’ Privilege
Every veteran on an Honor Flight must be accompanied by a guardian, often a family member or friend, who tends to them throughout the day. Guardians are necessary to ensure our veterans’ comfort and safety and help them have an enjoyable, fulfilling day. Because their duties include lifting them in and out of wheelchairs and up and down stairs, guardians must be at least 18 years of age and no more than 75, in good health, and easily able to lift 100 pounds.

The approximately 80 veterans on each flight pay nothing, but the guardians who accompany them must pay for their own trips. Their $500 guardian fee includes airfare, meals, an official hat and t-shirt, charter bus service, admittance to venues throughout Washington, DC, and more. A training session prior to the flight is also required for all guardians.

Those who have served as guardians consider it a privilege. Jill Walraven’s late husband, Dennis, was an Honor Flight guardian for a church friend in 2015 and could not stop talking about what a memorable day it had been—for both of them. Although he passed away a few months after the trip, Jill is grateful that he was able to have this experience. “His father served in the Korean War and came home a double amputee,” she says. “It meant so much to Dennis to have the opportunity to give back in this way.”

Pre-Flight Fellowship
Every Honor Flight is preceded by a pre-flight dinner at the Itoo Hall on Farmington Road the night before departure. The Itoo Society covers the cost of dinner for approximately 150-plus veterans and their guardians, three times a year. Additional family, friends and supporters are invited to attend the dinner for just $12 per person.

Members of Peoria’s Itoo Society, founded in 1914 by Lebanese immigrants, have served in the U.S. military in times of war and peace. Known for their wide community support and involvement, the Itoo Society has long honored our veterans in various charitable causes throughout the year—including the Honor Flight dinners as well as Military Retiree Appreciation Day.

Itoo Hall manager Semaan (Sam) Trad says they have been on board to host the Honor Flight dinners from the beginning. “When Phyllis [Piraino] called to ask the cost, I told her she probably couldn’t afford it,” he says. “Then I laughed and told her the price for vets and guardians would be: nothing.

The members of each branch of the military are introduced at the dinner, and the itinerary and details for the trip are discussed. Everyone gets a chance to know each other a little before traveling together the next day.

Honor Flight Day
On the morning of the flight, veterans are assisted with everything necessary to get them safely and comfortably aboard their chartered flight. T-shirts, hats and name tags are provided (different colors are designated for different wars), but if veterans have a uniform or part of one they would like to wear, they may do so. Every flight has a medical team that includes doctors, nurses and EMTs. Meals, snacks and beverages are provided throughout the day.

Once in Washington, everyone is transported in luxury buses with wheelchair lifts. Destinations for the day include the National World War II Memorial, Korean and Vietnam Veterans Memorials, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and the Marine Corps (Iwo Jima) Memorial. Everywhere they go, civilians and military alike stop to acknowledge the service of men and women on Honor Flights.

Although everyone is tired on the way home, the shared camaraderie is palpable. Thank-you letters—collected in advance from family, friends, students and other grateful Americans—are distributed to each veteran. Finally, there is that emotional Welcome Home reception at the airport. Most of our veterans describe the experience as one of the most memorable days they have ever had.

Covering the Costs
The three flights out of Peoria per year cost about $80,000 each for chartering a 737 jet and additional expenses for the day. The U.S. government is not involved and pays none of the cost, and all Honor Flight hubs are nonprofit organizations. So how are these trips financed?

The $500 guardian fees cover about half the cost of each flight. The remainder comes from donations (individuals, corporations, organizations and more) and fundraising projects. Some current fundraising initiatives include “Coffee for Heroes,” co-hosted by Greater Peoria Honor Flight and Peoria Firefighters Local 50, and Pottstown Meat and Deli’s annual contribution of a side of beef for raffle. The most successful fundraiser to date, “Nets for Vets,” was started in local grade schools by Phyllis Piraino. It has gone from raising $2,000 in 2013 to $93,000 in 2018—and more schools are participating every year!

Our Cherished Veterans
If everyone in the community understood just how much an Honor Flight means to our cherished veterans, they would ensure that everyone who wants to go can do so before time runs out. At a recent gathering of veterans, volunteers and supporters, a few veterans who have already taken Honor Flights were coaxed into sharing a few details of their impressive service records.

Gene Neeley is a 92-year-old Fifth Army vet who served in Africa, Sicily and Europe during World War II. After the war, he joined the Air Force, giving him a total of 18½ years of military service. After taking his Honor Flight in 2013, he decided to become a volunteer for the organization, and now donates multiple hours so others can make the journey that meant so much to him. When Phyllis Piraino calls, Gene says he does “whatever she wants me to do!”

Harold W. Berg joined the U.S. Marine Corps when he was 17, right after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and served at the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. He is the oldest surviving member of the First Marine Raider Battalion, one of the first special operations forces to form and see combat. He says that it was “quite an honor to go to Washington, DC with other veterans—men and women!”

Nora Leman was an Army nurse in the Philippines during World War II, after which she received $3,000 in education benefits, which she used to take flying lessons. She was selected to be on the first Honor Flight out of Peoria in 2013.

Doc Yeley served in the Army during the Korean War and was stationed north and west of the 38th Parallel, now the DMZ. The war ended in 1953, but he was there from 1952 through 1954.

A common trait of all these men and women seems to be a reluctance to elaborate on their service records or give themselves credit for their sacrifices. That’s because they do not consider themselves heroes—they believe the true heroes are those who never made it home. When asked what their Honor Flight meant to them, everyone said things like, “it was an honor to go,” “a perfect day” or “one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.”

Some admitted that long-buried emotions came to the surface when viewing the names on the memorials or during the Welcome Home reception. One local veteran expressed his feelings eloquently in a heartfelt thank-you note:

Many years ago, I was a boy in a jungle with an M16… just doing what had to be done. I returned with a heart burdened with anger, pain and guilt, torn between a need to remember and a need to forget. In September I met your wonderful, caring family of volunteers. With their understanding, gratitude and love, you helped bring a boy soldier home. Thank you, and may I give your family of volunteers a piece of my heart!
—A grateful Honor Flight recipient

The Greater Peoria Honor Flight is doing its part to see that all who want to visit our nation’s capital have the opportunity to go. Remember: time is running out to give many of our veterans the thanks and honor they deserve! iBi

In 2018, Greater Peoria Honor Flights are scheduled for May 8th, June 15th and September 18th. If you know someone who would like to have this experience, visit greaterpeoriahonorflight.org or call (309) 397-6975 for more information. Donations to the Honor Flight organization can be made via PayPal on the website or mailed to Greater Peoria Honor Flight, PO Box 5072, Peoria, IL 61601-5072.

 


How to Apply
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 640 World War II veterans die each day. Time is running out to thank the brave men and women of “The Greatest Generation,” and so many other heroes, so veterans are currently being prioritized according to policies set by National Honor Flight: 

  1. Older veterans and those with terminal illnesses or serious health issues;
  2. World War II veterans;
  3. Korean War veterans; and
  4. Vietnam and Middle East veterans.

Veterans who did not serve in a combat zone are eligible as well. They are prioritized according to dates of service, where they fall in respect to the number of wartime veteran applications, and date of application. All eligible veterans who wish to go are invited to apply. Everyone who applies is notified when there is an opening and will learn their flight date at least six weeks before date of departure.

Veterans can apply online at greaterpeoriahonorflight.org or by printing an application from the website and mailing it to Greater Peoria Honor Flight, PO Box 5072, Peoria, IL 61601-5072. 

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