by Ray Levato
In May 2005, a volunteer group of pilots in Springfield, Ohio offered to pool their flying talents together and fly 12 patients from a VA clinic to see their new World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. They flew in six small planes. The idea was to make the trip free to the vets, who might not otherwise get the chance. The first Honor Flight was born. Later that same year, a similar trip took place with veterans from North Carolina who traveled in charter jets.
Both groups were started by sons of older veterans who wanted their local WWII and Korean War vets to the see their memorials. Within two years, the two groups would merge and Honor Flight mushroomed. As of 2017, there were 140 Honor Flight hubs across the country.
Honor Flight Rochester (HFR) started in 2008 with about a dozen WWII vets. Since then, it has flown nearly 3,000 veterans from the Greater Rochester area on 60 missions; the vast majority of them being from the Greatest Generation. Each Honor Flight Rochester mission can accommodate between 50 and 60 vets. Each veteran travels with a guardian, often a family member, although volunteer guardians are also available.
There are six planned HFR trips each year: 3 in the spring and 3 in the fall. There are no summer trips by choice to avoid the summer heat in Washington.
Larry Strassner is a Marine Vietnam veteran who heads up the ground events and speaker’s bureau for Honor Flight Rochester, and he has served as a guardian on many Honor Flight Rochester missions. Strassner says accompanying a veteran is about the most rewarding thing he’s ever done and he praises the local community support. “We are blessed in Rochester. We’re one of the best supported hubs in the whole country. Our community support is mind-boggling.”
Many veterans have told him it’s the trip of a lifetime. “They list it as one of the three most important milestones in their lives – behind getting married and having children.”
Honor Flight Rochester flies commercial on Southwest Airlines. The organization’s only income is from contributions and donations. Veterans pay nothing. Their guardians are asked to contribute $300 each to help defray expenses.
Honor Flight Rochester also does something special that distinguishes it from other Honor Flight hubs: it is the only one in the eastern U.S. that does not fly in and out the same day.
After a long day of visiting a number of sites, veterans and their guardians can look forward to a delicious banquet and a good night’s rest at the Baltimore Hilton before making the return flight to Rochester the next day.
And that’s a welcome respite after a whirlwind day.
The day starts early on a Saturday morning in Rochester with a flight to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The veterans and their guardians board buses and receive a motorcycle escort to the capitol, starting out at the World War II Memorial. Then it’s on to the Lincoln Memorial and the nearby Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Other stops include the Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima) Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, The Women in Military Service for America Memorial, and the U.S. Air Force Memorial.
Local executive Tom Wesley accompanied his father Leo Wesley on an Honor Flight Rochester mission in May of 2013. The 91-year-old Wesley achieved the rank of captain in the Army Air Corps and flew 55 missions as a 22-year-old B-17 pilot over Italy and Southern Europe. “For a few years I and others had tried to convince dad that the Honor Flight program was a way for him to accept the thanks for his sacrifice and service from a grateful city and nation. He insisted that he needed no thanks and only did what he felt he had to do at the time,” Tom says looking back.
Wesley says his dad’s sense of humor took over on the plane. “He shared with the flight attendant that should the pilot need any assistance, he was ready to help.” Wesley says.
An Honor Flight Rochester team was waiting at the airport in Baltimore and the gate area was filled with active duty members from all branches of the service. They formed a two-sided receiving line, complete with cheers and handshakes. “Even the passengers who shared our flight joined in the celebration. My dad and everyone else on the flight were overwhelmed. It was unbelievable.”
The day ended with dinner at the hotel, and the chance for the veterans to mingle and share their thoughts and memories of decades past.
But it doesn’t end there. Veterans and their guardians can look forward to a celebratory welcome home when they return to Rochester. As many as 1,000 cheering family members, friends and well-wishers turn out.
Army veteran Katherine Davidson, who served in the Pentagon, made the trip with her Navy vet husband of 60 years, Dick Davidson, who served aboard a submarine. She told a local TV news crew they were overwhelmed by the homecoming. “I can’t get over all the hoopla for us. It’s just amazing. It’s bringing tears to my eyes.”
Vince Hope, a co-founder and past president of Honor Flight Rochester, says there is something almost spiritual that takes place when the veterans go to Washington and get a chance to rest overnight. “They wake up the next morning a band of brothers.
There’s a bonding that takes place. Nobody talks about it. You just feel it.” Hope was guardian in 2008 for his father Tom, an Army officer in WWII. Their Honor Flight trip together served as a catalyst to start a Rochester hub. “They go through a private catharsis. All this stuff maybe they’ve been holding in for decades – the things they went through in war – it all comes to a resolution. It’s pretty amazing.” And Hope says it’s had a ripple effect on the families and the community.
Since its inauspicious beginnings, the Honor Flight network of local groups and airport hubs has made it possible for hundreds of thousands of WWII and Korea vets – and now Vietnam vets – to see their respective memorials and other landmarks in nation’s capitol.
Ray Levato is a retired news reporter/anchor at WHEC-TV Channel 10 in Rochester, NY