Final Honor Flight 'A Very Touching Trip'
September 27, 2010
- The Sept. 11 trip was bittersweet for volunteers who have made Honor Flight a reality for 1,307 World War II veterans.
- "There are probably close to 3,000 volunteers over the course of four years who have been involved in this program."
- "This is the only Honor Flight program that has gone this long and taken this many veterans. It's a tribute to this community."
- "Watching the little kids who fought to shake their hands ... It was very touching. I've never cried so much in one day."
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.-- Adelaide Cape watched quietly as World War II veterans reunited with their loved ones at the Huntsville International Airport following the last Honor Flight Tennessee Valley on Sept. 11.
When a passerby asked if things were OK, the Honor Flight volunteer coordinator smiled as tears fell down her cheeks.
"It was very emotional, a very touching trip," she said.
For the past four years, Cape has coordinated the on-ground volunteers - known as the "green shirters" - who assist veterans as they board their Honor Flight and then as they reunite with their families upon their return. They have also helped with all the planning and arranging that goes into the pre- and post-flight activities at the Huntsville airport, and with the program's training and fund-raising events.
On this last Honor Flight - number 12 - Cape also got to share in the experience as a volunteer on the flight to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
"They told me I needed to go one time," she said. "I am so glad I did. It was just an unbelievable experience. The things I noticed so much - like the way our female guardians held the hands of their honorees at the memorial - were about the personal connections between the veterans and the people who were there to help them."
The end of the Sept. 11 return flight to Huntsville was a bittersweet moment for Cape and the hundreds of volunteers who have made Honor Flight a reality for 1,307 World War II veterans. Among the volunteers she feels especially indebted to are the Soldiers of the NCO Academy at Redstone and the Patriot Guard Riders, who were present to give the veterans their "marching orders" and to form a farewell corridor at the beginning of each Honor Flight.
"It was always touching to see those young faces mingled with those of seasoned warriors. It gave me a feeling of yesterday, today and tomorrow," Cape said.
That feeling was also felt on return flights, when school children from Heritage Elementary and members of the Columbia High JROTC, who were dressed in WWII period costumes, joined with veteran families and community well-wishers to give the veterans a hero's welcome home.
"This is a very patriotic community and a very supportive community," said Joe Fitzgerald, president of Honor Flight Tennessee Valley. "It is beyond belief all the support we've received. There are probably close to 3,000 volunteers over the course of four years who have been involved in this program. There are another 3,000 to 5,000 donors who have financially helped us to make this possible.
"This is the only Honor Flight program that has gone this long and taken this many veterans. It's a tribute to the type of people in this community that we were able to make this happen."
Although not the first such program for WWII veterans, Honor Flight Tennessee Valley did achieve plenty of firsts during its four years. It was the first Honor Flight that didn't care where veterans came from to make the flight, the first to include a full medical team on the trip, the first to require a guardian for each veteran and the first to offer large numbers of wheelchairs for its veterans.
"We wanted to be extremely safe and we wanted to be able to handle any situation that arose," Fitzgerald said. "A lot of the policies we put in place at the beginning after our test flight of 14 veterans. We wanted to make sure our veterans had the best day of their lives, and a relaxed day where every need is met by the guardian. The guardian becomes their buddy for the day and a friend for life."
Honor Flight Tennessee Valley was also the first to carry the flags of deceased veterans - 300 in all - to the memorial for a special ceremony.
Fitzgerald and the Honor Flight board have also helped to start Honor Flight programs in Birmingham, Prattville, Franklin, Tenn., Nashville, Tupelo, Miss., Atlanta and several locations in Georgia.
Although it's difficult - and in some ways heart wrenching -- to bring an end to such an all-around successful program, Fitzgerald said it's easier knowing that veterans throughout the north Alabama region have had the opportunity to participate in an Honor Flight.
"It's absolutely good that we've been able to bring it to an end with zero on our waiting list," he said. "We've received 1,700 applicants. Of those, 1,307 were able to go on Honor Flight. The others either became too ill to go with us, passed away before they could go with us or were unable to participate for other reasons."
Even though the Sept. 11 flight of 100 veterans marked the official end of Honor Flight, Fitzgerald said there is still much to do to wrap up the program. Volunteers will put together the program's archives and organize an Honor Flight exhibit for the Veterans Memorial Museum. There are also plans in the works for a reunion of Honor Flight alumni with guardians and volunteers also in attendance.
One part of the archives and exhibit will include the stories of the WWII veterans who were part of Honor Flight, veterans like 83-year-old Gordon Ray McFadden of Henry, Tenn., who served with the Army in France and Germany.
"I was a mechanic in the motor pool. I kept the convoys going," said McFadden, who still runs his own parts shop, tractor dealership and auto repair shop.
Honor Flight was his first trip to see the WWII memorial, which opened 60 years after the war's end. Although he enjoyed seeing the memorial, McFadden especially liked talking to other veterans, and meeting all the well-wishers that cheered the Honor Flight group at the Washington and Huntsville airports, and at the WWII, Marine Corps and Korean War memorials.
"It was wonderful," he said. "It made me feel like a hero quite a bit. I felt most like a hero when we got back to Huntsville. There were so many people lined up on both sides as we came through. That was the most touching thing for me to see all those people appreciating us."
McFadden's son, Steve McFadden, who is the Garrison's installation customer service officer, was a guardian on the Sept. 11 trip for Bob Snyder, who served as a WWII B-52 pilot in both theaters.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime event," Steve McFadden said. "I'm a history nut. But I didn't really think about how much this war meant to the world. These guys didn't have a choice. They had to defend our country."
Though the day was filled with taking care of veterans, Steve McFadden enjoyed the opportunity to "listen to their stories. It was just overwhelming. I respect my dad so much and these other veterans for what they did."
As a first-time guardian, Steve McFadden was also impressed with Honor Flight's volunteer coordinators.
"I can't believe how much dedication, how much organization and how much cooperation went into all this. Everyone is dedicated to the job," he said.
Steve McFadden plans to stay in touch with his veteran long after the Honor Flight.
"I just have an attraction to him," he said. "He tried to give me all the gifts he got on the trip to thank me. I told him 'No, it was my honor to be with you.'"
AMCOM G-3 employee Clifford "Bill" Binkley also plans to stay in touch with his Army veteran, 87-year-old Jim Lovingood of Scottsboro, and with James Journey of Decatur, a veteran he also sat with on the flight.
"I'm 59 and this is the most honored thing I've ever done," said Binkley, a Vietnam veteran who retired from the Army with 31 years service.
"It was an honor to do this. I almost missed the opportunity. I was on the list to be a guardian for two and a half years when I was picked for the May flight. But I was self-deployed to Iraq at that time and couldn't go. I was heart broke. But then they decided to do this one last flight in September and my wife talked to them and told them the situation, and I was selected for the last flight."
The whole day was a joy for Binkley, who wheeled his veteran around the memorials in one of the 80 wheelchairs supplied for the veterans.
"One wheelchair we got at the Korean War memorial had inflated tires," he said. "As we went around one corner, we blew the right tire out. As we went around another corner, we blew the left tire out. We joked we were so busy that we ran the tires right off the wheelchair. It's something I'll never forget."
Like Steve McFadden, Binkley also enjoyed the WWII stories he heard on the trip.
"To be among these guys and gals and listen to their stories ... They are a walking history book. It's past due time to recognize them," Binkley said. "It was so wonderful to listen to them and to see the looks on their faces when they saw their memorial."
Binkley also witnessed that look of enthusiasm in the faces of all the volunteers and well-wishers who made the trip so special for the veterans.
"How can I put words to it' What Joe Fitzgerald and those folks have done is so phenomenal," he said. "They have done what is right for these folks. They have a passion. They have smiles on their faces. Their hearts are in the right places. And, watching the little kids who fought to shake their hands ... It was very touching. I've never cried so much in one day."