A Hero’s Welcome: Flag City Honor Flight 2012

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Did you hear alarm clocks ringing at 3 a.m. last Thursday?

That was the sound of 165 area veterans and their guardians awakening for one of the longest yet most memorable days ever:  Flag City Honor Flight 2012.

George King, a North Baltimore resident from 1939-2001 and Korean War veteran, was one of the 79 veterans who were honored as part of Flag City Honor Flight 2012.  He served in the U.S. Army from 1950 – 1952 and spent nine months on the frontlines in Korea.  George’s Honor Flight guardian was his daughter, Karen Bishop, Findlay, who works as Assistant Director of Nursing at Birchaven.

Seven NBHS alums also volunteered to serve as guardians on the Flag City Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Denise (Sterling) Green ’77, Kathy (Vermilya) Cramer ’78, Julie (Slaughterbeck) Brown ’78, Karen (King) Bishop ’77, Melody (Blake) Drewes ’78, Nancy Swartz ’76, and Lori (Phillips) Allison ’77.  Each veteran is assigned a personal guardian to accompany him throughout the day.  Some veterans elect to take a family member as a guardian, but many choose a community volunteer to serve as guardian.

Melody Drewes had previously volunteered as a guardian on a national Honor Flight and accompanied two North Baltimore residents:  her father and uncle, Bob and Paul Blake.  The Blake’s were well-represented on the earlier Honor Flight with Paul Blake’s daughter, Cathy Basye, serving as his guardian.  Meeting the group in Washington, D.C. was Bob’s family:  Bob “Bun” Blake, Patty Long, and Josh Long.   Drewes said, “I wanted to be an Honor Flight guardian again because it is such a rewarding experience to honor those who gave so much for each and every one of us!  Based on my dad’s and Uncle Paul’s experiences, I know an Honor Flight is the trip of a lifetime for a veteran.”

Nancy Swartz, who is a registered nurse at Fostoria ProMedica Hospital, spent the day serving as a guardian for Robert Wilson of McComb, a World War II veteran.   Swartz felt especially blessed to have the opportunity to serve as a guardian to honor her father, Gene Swartz, who was a WW II US Navy veteran and survived the Pearl Harbor attacks:  “I’m sure that if he were alive today, we would be making the trip together. Instead I’ll be proud to share the day with someone else’s dad, but will have my dad’s memory close to my heart.”

Like Swartz, many of the guardians work as health care providers which provides a precaution to any minor health issues that might arise during the trip.  “Even though many of the veterans are elderly, for the day of the Honor Flight they are 20 year old soldiers again,” said Deb Wickerham, Flight Director. 

Veterans and guardians began the morning at 4 a.m. at the Masonic Temple in Findlay. The buses were loaded and followed a motorcycle escort to Toledo Express Airport.  Upon arriving at the private terminal, guardians and veterans were treated to a hot breakfast.  Ohio Representative Robert Sprague shared a personal thank you with each veteran before he entered the plane.

Next the flight was boarded for Baltimore Washington International Airport.  In total, 170 souls and 66 wheelchairs were onboard.  Upon landing, the veterans were greeted by an active three-star general stationed at the Pentagon.  Three charter buses were loaded and the group headed for the National Mall.  The veterans and their guardians visited the memorial dedicated to each specific veteran’s war:  WW II, Korean, or Vietnam.   A hearty lunch was provided under a tent near the WW II Memorial.  The most powerful moments of the trip were the many tourists at the memorials who spontaneously thanked the veterans for their service.  Each veteran was surrounded by strangers who wanted to shake hands, take a picture or share a hug. 

Soon, it was time for another reloading of the buses for a trip to Arlington National Cemetery where the group enjoyed V.I.P. seating for the Changing of the Guard.  Finally the buses circled the Iwo Jima and Air Force monuments and the Pentagon and the return journey to the airport.

Finally, the exhausted group was back aboard the charter plane headed for Toledo Express Airport.  The veterans and guardians thought the day’s festivities were over, but arrived to a hero’s welcome replete with a military band, family, and friends.  Over 400 people were in attendance.  The evening ended with a mail call.  Each veteran received photographs from his visit, a good conduct pin, and a book highlighting his memorial.  By 11 p.m., it was time to reload the buses for the journey home to Findlay.

To summarize his experience, George King said, “I am very glad I went on this trip.  I did not know that so many people cared that I had served my country.”

Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for their sacrifices. Honor Flight transports heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans:  World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.

Initially, Flag City Honor Flight was formed as a branch of Honor Flight NW Ohio in Toledo.  In 2010, local leaders of the initiative felt a sense of urgency prompted by the age of World War II veterans to get more Hancock County veterans to their memorials.  At that juncture, Flag City Honor flight was established as an independent nonprofit agency under the leadership of Deb Wickerham, fifth grade teacher at Findlay’s Chamberlin Hill Elementary and former Ohio Teacher of the Year.  For additional information on future flights or to volunteer or donate to Flag City Honor Flight, please visit http://www.flagcityhonorflight.org/.

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