Earlier this year, the last veteran of World War I died at the age of 110. It’s hard to believe, but in the coming years, most of America’s World War II veterans will be gone as well. The Honor Flight Network exists to grant them one last wish and final honor before they go. The program transports World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., free of charge to see the National World War II Memorial for the first—and likely—last time.
Earl Morse—a retired air force captain and pilot—got the idea for Honor Flight about seven years ago. He took care of veterans, and after hearing some of them convey disappointment that they would never see the memorial, he volunteered his flight services to a few men free of charge. The overwhelming appreciation they expressed at this no-cost opportunity was the inspiration for the Honor Flight Network.
Since its inception in 2005, Honor Flight has brought over 63,000 veterans to D.C. at no cost to them to see the memorial. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, fewer than 2 million World War II veterans remain alive. Time is running out to ensure that every one of them has this opportunity.
The World War II Memorial was opened to the public in 2004, but the majority of the 16 million veterans it honored would never have a chance to see it. Nearly 400,000 died serving their country, and 60 years after the war, 1,000 are dying every day.
Honor Flight has made dreams come true for those who remain. Today, community leaders pair with Honor Flight to bring their local veterans to the memorial. Tour buses full of aging vets can be seen outside the memorial every weekend. The Honor Flight Network holds regular fundraisers and accepts online donations to support the trips, which cost between $12,000 to $15,000 for a group of 40, including flights, ground transportation, food, and other special needs.
The stories and overwhelming emotion that come with these visits made an impact on filmmaker Dan Hayes when he first spent a day with a group of Honor Flight vets. In an interview on Monday, Hayes said the day he went down to the monument and starting talking with people, “it was like magic.”
It didn’t take long for Hayes to volunteer to help on an Honor Flight, an experience he called “life changing and incredibly powerful.” Each trip requires a number of volunteer “guardians” (who pay their own way) to accompany the veterans, many of whom are disabled. Hayes quit his job at Reason to start a new company, Freethink Media, in order to start a documentary film about Honor Flight.
“[The veterans] compared [the trip] to the birth of their children, their marriages, their wedding days—it was obviously incredibly special,” said Hayes, after speaking one-on-one with over 100 veterans and filming more than 90 hours.
His film, The Story of Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, will debut in November of this year—hopefully to the widespread acclaim it deserves. The film is not just about a memorial or an organization; it’s about the people—and the way their lives have contributed to the world in a powerful way.
“It’s not the monument or their military service,” said Hayes. “Honor Flight is a vehicle for friends and family to express their appreciation and gratitude for what these people have done in their lives—it just happens to be wrapped in a military theme.”
On the way home from each trip, veterans receive a surprise mail call—a packet of letters their loved ones have put together. It is what Hayes calls a “pre-emptive eulogy,” an invaluable gift of words that most people don’t have the opportunity to experience. Viewers will certainly recognize the reality of sacrifice and life’s brevity in this heartening documentary.
“Throughout the film, it’s basically a direct challenge to the viewer—have you thought about this? Have you thought about your freedom, truly and deeply? And what are you doing with this incredible gift of freedom?” said Hayes.
The veterans fly into Reagan National Airport to crowds of appreciative Americans standing and clapping in recognition of their service before they board buses to head to their memorial. It is an unforgettable scene. Near life’s end, these veterans receive from Honor Flight the appreciation, the memorial, and the honor they earned so many years ago.
To volunteer your services as a guardian for an Honor Flight near you, click here.