REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--Since its inception in 2007, Honor Flight Tennessee Valley has flown 1,002 World War II veterans free of charge to Washington, D.C. to see their memorial.

The one-day trips, which started with the maiden voyage of 14 veterans flown on a commercial flight, grew into major community events both in Huntsville and D.C., involving hundreds of volunteers and flag-waving well wishers along with a show of patriotism that followed the veterans as they visited their memorial, Arlington Cemetery, the Korean War Memorial, the Marine Corps Memorial and other D.C. sites.

Those trips are destined to become part of history in the spring of 2010 as Honor Flight completes its final flight.

"This program has been about the recognition of the accomplishments of these veterans. They are the oldest living generation who paid for the freedom we are enjoying. We owe them everything, and we are grateful we've been able to give them Honor Flight," said Joe Fitzgerald, who has spearheaded the local Honor Flight effort and who serves as president of the Honor Flight board of directors.

Currently, Honor Flight has a database of almost 200 WW II veterans who will fly on the April 24 and May 29 Honor Flights. The organization will continue to take applications for those flights through Jan. 31.

"We're asking the community that if they know any World War II veterans who are able to go on the flight and who want to see their memorial, to get their applications into us right away. We're encouraging applications to come in," Fitzgerald said.

"Some of the 200 we have signed up right now will not be able to go in the spring. Time changes everything for these veterans."

The Jan. 31 deadline marks the beginning of the end of Honor Flight Tennessee Valley.

"We need the Jan. 31 cutoff date so that we can determine how we will fly all our WW II veterans to their memorial," Fitzgerald said. "We hope to fill up both flights. And we will schedule more flights if we have to so that all veterans who want to see their memorial and who are able to see their memorial can make the trip."

Since April 2007, Honor Flight has flown veterans on nine flights - one commercial flight for 14 and the other eight chartered flights that allowed the organization to fly up to 125 veterans on each along with guardians, medical personnel and other key volunteers. About 40 guardians actually make the flight with the rest of the guardians recruited from organizations and companies located in the D.C. area.

With every flight, Fitzgerald and other volunteers have noticed a marked decline in the health of WW II veterans. Today, the youngest WW II veteran is 81, with most in their late 80s or early 90s.

"Because of the age, frailty and health of these veterans, we need to finish this program," he said. "They've gotten so frail, their medical conditions so severe, that now's the time. We've seen more and more health issues on our flights, more oxygen, more health requests, more use of permanent wheelchairs, more heart conditions, and more serious, serious health conditions.

"We need to consider the safety of veterans and bring this program to a very wonderful ending. This is the right time to end it. Going beyond this time would not be the best thing for WW II veterans."

Although earlier plans included continuing Honor Flights for Korean War and Vietnam War veterans upon completion of the WW II flights, Fitzgerald said that plan has changed and that he foresees another group of volunteers taking up that effort when the time is right.

"The discussion among the Honor Flight board and volunteers is that we need to bring this program to an end. We need to get it done. We need to accomplish this mission," Fitzgerald said. "We believe there will be an initiative to honor Korean War veterans and Vietnam War veterans in a similar manner. Some group will step forward to do that."

Honor Flight has been made possible due to the donations of hundreds of Tennessee Valley residents, organizations and corporations. Liberty's Legacy donated enough funds to pay for the most recent flight on Oct. 24. Several local organizations, including Redstone Arsenal employee groups, have made donations to the program.

The WW II program tugged at the heartstrings of donors for two reasons - one, the 60-year time span between the war and when the memorial was built made it more difficult for older veterans to visit it and, two, WW II veterans fought in a world war for freedom.

With the ramp down of the Honor Flight program, Fitzgerald said he will refocus his efforts to help raise funds for the much-needed new Veterans Memorial Museum, which will be more modern and spacious than its current warehouse-type facility that is owned by the city and located in John Hunt Park.

"We need to build a museum to honor all veterans for now and evermore," he said. "The museum is something that will go on forever and be a benefit for the entire community. Libraries and museums define a community in terms of its character. We want to ensure we have one of the best military museums in the nation."

With the Army's growth on Redstone Arsenal, including the addition of a four-star general and the headquarters of the Army Materiel Command, Fitzgerald said the community needs a world-class veterans museum "to honor every veteran who has ever served."

Each Honor Flight costs about $100,000. With 11 flights total, a substantial amount of funds have been raised for the Honor Flight program. Fitzgerald would like to see similar funds raised for the memorial museum.

"We are so thankful we were able to do this during the past four years," he said. "If we started to do it now, Honor Flight wouldn't have worked because the veterans are getting too old and frail. But we are so thankful we've been able to fly those who have been able to go."
About $75,000 is needed to complete funding for the spring flights. Any funds raised above that amount will be donated to the veterans museum for a WW II and Honor Flight exhibit.

"Every penny we've raised has gone to execute the mission, including travel, meals, T-shirts, insurance, buses and other expenses," Fitzgerald said.

Although Honor Flight was not begun in the Tennessee Valley (it actually was begun by pilot Earl Morris in 2004 and local plans for the program started in 2006), the local organization does have the distinction of being one of the largest Honor Flight programs, for establishing the safety standard of having one guardian for each veteran, for starting the Honor Flags program and for supporting various other communities in starting their own Honor Flight programs.

"When Earl Morris started this, he used his own small private airplane to transport veterans. When we started planning this at the end of 2006, we realized we were going to have to do this and do it fast," Fitzgerald said.

Since the beginning of Honor Flight, 36,000 WW II veterans have been flown to see their memorial. When the Tennessee Valley organization began, there were only a few others. Now, there are close to 100 organizations scattered throughout the U.S. Of those, the Tennessee Valley organization has helped start efforts in Birmingham, Montgomery, Gadsden, Tupelo, Miss., Knoxville, Franklin, Tenn., and Atlanta.

In addition, the Tennessee Valley organization has flown more than 170 flags of deceased WW II veterans to the memorial through the Honor Flags program, which includes a ceremony at the memorial on the day of an Honor Flight.

To sign up for Honor Flight Tennessee Valley, visit its website at Donations for Honor Flight can be sent to Honor Flight Tennessee Valley, c/o The Huntsville Times, P.O. Box 1487 WS, Huntsville, AL 35807.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16