WRITTEN & PHOTOGRAPHED BY THERESA ST. JOHN
Leatherstocking Honor Flight is one of more than 100 established, non- profit entities, within the national Honor Flight Network. The collective group has a singular mission; to escort our remaining WWII Veterans to Washington DC, and the memorials erected there, in their honor.
To date, they've flown over 1,000 men and women to Washington, hoping to thank them in some small way for their service.
I first met this group of selfless volunteers at the Saratoga Race Course. It was a Sunday afternoon in 2015 and a dozen WWII, alongside Korean War Veterans, were being honored by The New York Racing Association, during the tracks' Military Appreciation Day.
I, like many others, cannot help but show emotion when meeting a United States Veteran. I'm reminded of young lives lost during wartime, our soldiers trudging through the muck and mire of foreign lands, sometimes sacrificing their own life in combat, to keep America free. This particular Sunday was meant to be a celebration of that service.
And it was. I watched young military men and women wait in line to talk to their heroes. I listened, as they were regaled with stories of war-torn countries and amazing acts of bravery. A10-foot tall Uncle Sam made an appearance, entertaining veterans, while smiling volunteers guided each wheelchair into the winner's circle, to watch a race dedicated to them.
A few weeks later, I met with Rhonda Cooper, veteran coordinator of Leather Stocking Honor Flight, over a cup of coffee. Serving 15 counties around Albany, Massachusetts and Vermont, she expounded on the group's determination to ensure our remaining WWII vets attend an all-expense paid trip to Washington.
Because we are losing our WWII vets at
a rapid rate now, they get priority when applicants are selected for the 5 flights a year. But, Rhonda explained, the group does consider Korean War veterans as well, when there is a seat available.
Volunteer guardians are assigned to care for one vet on the day of the flight, and each pays for their own ticket with Southwest Airlines. Some guardians are family members, others are friends of the vet's family, while others are complete strangers.
Like I was. I was matched with a WWII Veteran named Tom. I spoke with Tom and his wife a few weeks before our Honor flight, driving to their home, just a few miles away, to meet in person.
When they learned I had no family in the military, they asked why I would want to be Tom's guardian. I smiled, then got a bit teary- eyed. “It's the least I can do, to say Thank You.”
“But, you've never even met me.” Tom said, sipping his coffee and looking at me over the rim of his cup.
“You didn't know me when you enlisted and got shipped off to Guam, either.”
So, it was a done deal–we were flying out together–on a life-changing trip to DC.
I think there were 98 of us on that Southwest flight. When we arrived at the Albany airport, escorted by police cars with blaring sirens, the sight was amazing. People we'd never seen before lined the sidewalks and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the lobby. They held signs thanking veterans for their service. They shook hands and clapped WWII vets on the back.
There were heart-felt speeches by government officials, patriotic music from a neighboring high school band, and lots of uplifting emotion before we boarded the plane.
When we landed in Maryland, the scene was the same; people reaching out to thank service men and women for fighting to
protect our future, children walking up to veterans, shaking their hands and asking about where they'd fought during the war.
The day was filled with surprises. I won't go into them here, so they can remain surprises for the next Leather Stocking Honor Flight. I will say that the day was packed with emotion for all of us.
Standing in front of memorials with our charges, watching their eyes fill up with the memory–of what–we didn't ask. We were there to listen if they wanted to share. And eventually they did–with us and with each other. By the end of the day we shared a common bond and felt as if we'd been friends forever.
We landed at Albany's International Airport around 11 p.m. Everyone was tired and wide- awake at the same time. We kept playing the day over and over again in our heads.
When we entered the terminal, it was surreal–crowds of people had come out again. They lined the lobby, the stairwells, the sidewalks. All we could hear were the words “Thank you for your service,” and the sweetest greeting of all - “Welcome Home!”
To say there wasn't a dry eye in the room is an understatement. Leather Stocking Honor Flight borrows the words of Will Rogers, who says it best on their web-site.
“We can't all be Heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they walk by.” SS
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