Longtime family friends of mind, Rich and Glenda Powell, have been involved with the local Honor Flight organization for years. They wanted to share this moving experience with our Journal Plus readers, and they offered to pay my way so I could do a story. If you know Glenda, you know it’s impossible to say no to her, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

How do you explain Honor Flight to someone who has never heard of it? Here’s the short answer: “Honor Flight takes WWII and Korean veterans back to Washington DC to visit their memorials.” As I share my experience with you, I think you’ll agree it’s so much more than that.

On October 15th we met at the SLO airport to catch our flights—first to Phoenix, and then a connecting flight to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. On this occasion, there were 20 veterans and 21 guardians (these are the folks who assist the veterans for the duration of the trip) plus a few other staff to make sure the weekend goes smoothly. And me, for a total of 47 altogether. As I walked through the door at the San Luis Obispo terminal, I could see right away that this was not run like a fraternity car wash. Sitting at a table, ready to hand out lunches and flight tickets was Glenda Powell. “The flight is delayed by three hours,” she announced. “It’s going to be a long day.”

As we sat there waiting, the veterans started rolling in, and I do mean rolling. Many of our vets are now in their 90s and need the assistance of a wheelchair. Honor Flight organizers were frantically on the phones with American Airlines trying to fix the problem of the connecting flight. Suddenly, I realized what Honor Flight means to some people, and that includes American Airlines. After about 90 minutes, Bear McGill (our team leader) announced that American Airlines was bringing in a plane of our own for the Phoenix to Washington DC flight. I’m not sure what kind of plane it was, but it was big, and comfy, and we had it all to ourselves. The crew had even decorated it in red, white, and blue. When we walked off the plane at the Phoenix terminal, there must have been forty people there to greet the traveling veterans. You could see the spark of surprise in their eyes; I don’t think that they were expecting such a warm welcome. As we boarded the plane to Washington DC, the crew couldn’t have been nicer, and the captain personally greeted everyone who boarded.

Honor Flight honorees on the flight to DCWhen we arrived at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, we were treated to a water cannon salute from the Fire Department. It’s a touching tradition involving two fire trucks spraying arcs of water over the nose of the airplane as a sign of respect for the military veterans the plane is carrying. Inside the terminal, another group greeted our arrival with big fanfare. Our veterans were pretty tired at this point, so we boarded the bus and headed to the hotel. There were big plans for the following day.

After breakfast the next morning we were loaded onto the bus by 7:00 a.m. for the ride to our first destination. Typical DC morning traffic means the trip should take more than two hours, but we had an ace up our sleeve. A full-court police escort, lights blazing and flags flying, took us all the way to our first stop, Arlington Cemetery, and it took only 45 minutes. Now I know how the President feels. I don’t want to say it was the highlight of the trip, but it was pretty cool. You can see the video on my Facebook page (Tom Meinhold Photography).

We arrived at Arlington to see the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The veterans were able to watch from their own roped-off area, created just for them. Afterwards, they were treated to a talk by a young trainee who gave us some facts. The one that stuck in my mind was that it takes up to two years before soldiers are ready to guard the Tomb. The guards want to thank and acknowledge the veterans present for their service, but are unable to break in their duties. But if you watch very closely you’ll see them scrape their heel in the veterans’ direction in a silent salute to the war heroes who came before them.

The next stop was the United States Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial). We spent an hour there and had some time to take it all in. I had only driven by it in the past so it was really something else to see it up close. Once the Pacific veterans had their photos taken with the memorial in the background, we were off to our next stop.

The Air Force Memorial is a stainless steel monument that reaches up to the sky looking like three jet trails. It’s a truly amazing sight. It was built after 9-11, and we were told that the plane that crashed into the Pentagon would have hit the monument first had it been in place that day. From there, we headed to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (FDR Memorial) where they had box lunches waiting for us. We were encouraged to take our time and walk through the memorial at our own pace. As I watched the veterans looking at all the displays, I saw something that took my breath away. It was then that I understood what this trip really means.

Maggie Cox, who writes for the Journal, was also on this trip escorting her father, Jim Henderson, who is 95 years old and a WWII veteran. Maggie was rolling her father along in his wheelchair at a nice slow pace so they could take it all in, when a woman stopped them. She bent down to Jim’s level to thank him for his service, and to say something more. I don’t know what all was said, but I could tell that Maggie was very moved by the exchange. I pulled back a bit to broaden my view of the vets and the public as they moved slowly through the FDR Memorial.

Everywhere I looked, similar emotional exchanges were taking place. At the Korean War Veterans Memorial, there’s another display that brings out emotions in people. One of our veterans fought in some very bloody battles and he lost many friends in Korea. As he stood in front of the memorial, I could see that he was taking a moment to reflect. I wanted to ask him what he was feeling but didn’t want to intrude. Later he told me how thankful he was to have been a part of this great trip.

From there, we moved on to the Lincoln Memorial and then walked by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. We didn’t spend much time at either because the final stop of the day was at the World War II Memorial. There are Honor Flights like ours based in hundreds of cities across the country. And next year, many of them will begin to include Vietnam War veterans as well, not just vets from WWII and Korea.

When we got off the bus for the WWII memorial, we gathered for a photograph of all the veterans in our group. Another Honor Flight was getting off a bus, too. I’m not sure which city this new bus was from, but all the participants were wearing blue or red t-shirts. It really was awesome to watch this sea of red and blue milling about the memorial.

I spotted Maggie Cox and her Dad in the crowd and suddenly I knew they had to be on the cover of this month’s issue. I asked Jim if he wouldn’t mind standing for a minute while we took the photo. I could tell he wasn’t feeling his best but I never heard him or anyone else complain, not for one second. It wasn’t hard to imagine Jim Henderson as a young man in uniform, proud to be serving his country. Soon after that, we boarded the bus and the police escorted us back to the hotel in record time.

On our final morning, we headed off to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. We arrived in time to hear the United States Navy Band play “The Star Spangled Banner” while they raised the colors for the day. I couldn’t help but think of my own father, who served in the Navy during the Korean War. It was a truly moving moment and my personal highlight of the trip.

After a bus tour of the campus, including the Memorial Hall and the Naval Chapel, we were off to lunch at Mission BBQ, a place with strong military ties. You see, every day at noon in all of the Mission BBQ locations (now numbering more than 40), they stop and play our national anthem. Everyone in the restaurant stands, hands on hearts.

After a great lunch it was off to Fort McHenry to see the birthplace of our national anthem. I spent some time walking around and looking out at the Chesapeake Bay. I tried to imagine the British Navy sitting two miles off-shore, pounding this little fort during the War of 1812. With only a 1.5-mile cannon range, our brave soldiers held their ground against overwhelming odds and as dawn approached, they’d see, as the song says “that our flag was still there.”

Feeling the physical and emotional toll that two days of nonstop activity had taken, we boarded the bus back to the airport for the long flight home. Once again, an admiring crowd waited for us at the Phoenix airport, but it was nothing compared to the one that greeted us at home. There must have been 100 people waiting to welcome their hometown heroes, including Sheriff Ian Parkinson, Under Sheriff Tim Olivas, and KSBY-TV. It was a homecoming fit for true war heroes.

Glenda Powell was right: You have to be there to fully appreciate what this effort is all about. Honor Flight is so much more than taking a bunch of old guys to go see some monuments. It’s showing our war heroes the appreciation of a grateful nation for their sacrifice so that we can all be free. If you would like to see more photos from this amazing experience, CLICK HERE.

Tom and Julie Meinhold are editors and publishers of Journal Plus and also own and operate Tom Meinhold Photography.