The Honor Flight Network has spent more than a decade bringing groups of World War II veterans to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., so they can experience the memorial dedicated to them.
The nonprofit, founded in 2005, has flown more than 200,000 vets since its inception and is on track to have flown another 25,000 by the end of this year alone.
Organizers are racing against time to find World War II veterans before it's too late. They want them to feel that their service mattered, and that it will always matter.
"That generation is very humble," said David Nichols, chairman of the Honor Flight Network.
Nichols, an Air Force veteran with the organization since 2008, recently sat down with Military.com to discuss how the organization is juggling changes, such as an influx of Korea and Vietnam vets, who want to participate in the program.
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A Disappearing Generation
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that of the 16 million service members who served during WWII, roughly 500,000 are alive today. That number is diminishing rapidly; veterans who were teenagers at the start of the war are now in their late 80s.
It's why the group gives WWII vets first priority. But these days, they tend to make up 20 percent or less of each Honor Flight, Nichols said.
Those who have serious health issues go to the top of the list, Nichols and Werner said. The only circumstances under which Honor Flight will not consider an ailing vet’s application is if they are mentally unstable, and could scare easily or become upset at unfamiliar surroundings.
In the last four years, Korean and Vietnam war veterans have made up a larger part of Honor Flights.
For example, in 2017, more than 8,600 Korean War vets made the trek to D.C., along with nearly 7,500 Vietnam War vets. By comparison, roughly 4,200 WWII vets made the trip.
"There are some groups that just do all-Korea or all-Vietnam trips," Nichols said.
The organization has about 140 Honor Flight regional hubs across the U.S., some in big cities, others in remote or rural areas. It's not uncommon for smaller areas to transition to vets involved in these later conflicts, Nichols said.
The hubs oversee raising money in their communities and getting the message to vets who may not have heard of Honor Flight.
"Hubs tend to go on a two-to-three-hour driving distance around their city" to reach vets, Nichols said.
Chicago, one of the larger hubs, only recently transitioned to Korean War vets because of the larger population of WWII-era vets living in the region. Other large hubs include Rochester, New York; areas in Ohio and California; and the Great Lakes region.
Veterans taking part in the program arrive at airports to find a sea of people to greet them that often includes politicians, law enforcement and fellow service members.
Mostly, though, they're strangers coming to say, "Thank You."
"They say, 'They treat us like the president,' " Nichols said, adding that such treatment goes a long way.
The goal of Honor Flights is not only for members of the Greatest Generation to share the trip with fellow vets and enjoy it, but also to tell their stories for succeeding generations to hear.
"We're up against the clock with the World War II vets," Nichols said.
"We would love to keep finding them," added Theresa Werner, an Honor Flight board member and volunteer since 2009.
Sometimes, there's a struggle to reach WWII vets, or they're reluctant to make the trip, she said.
Generally, those veterans learn about the program through word of mouth, a television ad, or the way they're used to getting their news -- a physical newspaper, Nichols said.
When they do make the trip, they can experience a camaraderie they never thought they'd achieve at this stage, Nichols said.
"Whatever their stories were, it's that day of being around other military veterans going to the memorials, they'll start telling their stories," Werner said.
Nichols recalled one WWII vet, who served as a supply sergeant at a depot on the West Coast, who felt embarrassed to be on an Honor Flight trip in 2010 because he hadn't deployed from home station during the war. "He felt like he didn't do enough."
Two Marines who deployed to the Pacific during the war were on the same Honor Flight. The three not only became friends, the Marines helped the former supply sergeant understand the importance of his role.
"They said, 'If you hadn't' of had all the supplies, ammo and food coming to us all the time, we would ... have certainly died,' " Nichols said. "Sometimes, we have to coax vets to make them understand what they did was important. Whether or not if they were being shot at ... it was important. It led to the bigger picture."
The transition to later generations has brought an increase in female veterans, Nichols said. But sometimes WWII-era women have also made the trip.
Roughly 400,000 women served in the armed forces during WWII in the medical corps, Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPS, Women's Army Corps, and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, program.
The re-enactment portions of the trip can take some vets back to their time in service, Nichols said.
One woman saw a military staff car -- used for light transportation for high-ranking officers -- during the welcome ceremony, and never wanted to see anything else, because it was a part of her story.
"She drove the same model during the war," Nichols said. "When they we're getting ready to leave, she gave it a pat on the hood [as her proper goodbye]. And that's all she needed on that trip."
He said the woman was photographed by Washingtonian Magazine, who identified her as Margaret Smith of the Women's Army Corps. She drove the pool car under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the magazine said.
"That made her trip," Nichols said. "That was a big thing she did in her life."
Funding the Mission
The majority of Honor Flight's funding comes from private donations. It starts at the community and regional levels, but the national office will reallocate funding to hubs that need assistance.
"It's funny where money comes from sometimes," Nichols said. The organization receives almost $30,000 each year from two women in Bastogne, Belgium, he said.
"They raise money to maintain all the battlefields in Belgium, and they've met U.S. WWII veterans [involved in] the Battle of the Bulge," the last major German offensive that killed scores of allied troops in eastern Belgium during the last leg of the war, he said. "They just want to make sure that U.S. veterans got to go see their memorial in D.C. It's as simple as that."
Honor Flights run from March through November, but the summers are slow because of the heat.
Each Honor Flight costs an average of $100,000. Trips from out west are more expensive because of the travel distance and duration, Werner said. All costs are covered for the veterans.
Logistics includes airfare, dozens of wheelchairs, hundreds of meals, transportation around D.C., oxygen tanks and volunteer medical technicians who come to offer support.
Honor Flight members and other volunteers even recreate something from the vets' era -- such as a swing dance -- at the memorials take them back to their youth.
"Ace Butt from Arby's in Clinton, [Maryland] off of Route 5? He's been with Honor Flight since the beginning," Nichols said. "He's literally done hundreds of thousands of lunches, and he delivers them. That's all he does during the season. On the big weekends? He'll make 2,000 lunches."
Other restaurants such as Mission BBQ cater meals for the vets during their trip.
"And it's magic like that … that makes this possible," Werner added.
No End in Sight
Werner said Honor Flight is setting new goals for 2019. There's a "final push to make sure that every WWII veteran that's on a list gets here," she said.
The trips allow vets to expound on their history, but it's also about feeling included, they said.
"Most Vietnam veterans will tell you they never got a welcome home," Werner said. "Other than their families, a lot of them will tell you this is the first time they felt they've gotten a welcome home."
When family members such as children or grandchildren and, in certain cases, spouses tag along as the vet's guardian for the day, they may hear a story previously unbeknownst to them. "You get a variety of reactions," Nichols said.
"We ask them and they say, 'Oh my son signed me up, or my wife made me do it,' but at the end of the day, it was always the best day," Werner said.