Patriotism, the virtue assigned to the Knights of Columbus Fourth degree. I had a wonderful opportunity last month to be immersed in patriotism. I participated in an Honor Flight. Beyond “doing my part” to show support for my country and appreciation for those who defend us, this was a personal journey for me. My Dad had decided to go on an Honor Flight to Washington DC…and I was fortunate enough to get to be his “guide” for the day. This Knight’s Council has supported Honor Flight for some time now and it is truly life changing for many of our Veterans. A few stats…there were 78 vets on this trip, including two women. We had three busses filled and the flight was a chartered 737 with no empty seats. Each trip costs $50,000 dollars and no vet pays a dime. On this trip easily 80% of the vets used a wheelchair. Over half the guides were vets themselves and one of them is currently in the military. On of these individuals was a Vietnam vet and this was his 30th Honor Flight as a guide. Our flight was one of 7 Honor Flights from around the US. In all, there were 400 vets visting Washington that day through Honor Flight. When we arrived in Baltimore the vets were welcomed by about 40 active service men and women. Each one making sure they shook hands with the vets and expressed their gratitude for their service.
There was a real cross-section of America on this trip. The vets were from all walks of life, different races and religions. Personalities ran the gamut. However, I came to realize there were commonalities beyond being Vets. There was no arrogance, no rank among them. These individuals were grateful for the trip, the gestures of appreciation and for the Memorial that was erected in DC. They did not ask for these things, but they did appreciate them. They did not display any sense of entitlement. In fact, on our bus it looked like we were going to be a couple boxes short on lunches when they were being passed out. Without hesitation one of the vets said “I’ll just have half of my sandwich and someone else can have the other.” We had to smile, here we are on a trip that was intended be all for the vets, a day in which they would not need to worry about anything, and one of the vets did not hesitate to give away some of his food. As it turned out, everyone had a lunch anyway. I was assigned to guide two vets, my Dad and another gentleman who was in the Army, named Lowell. Lowell did not see combat in WWII. He was sent to Okinawa after we had control. He was staged to invade Japan were he awaited the result of the atomic bomb. It is an interesting perspective to gain from one whose life most likley literally hung in the balance based on the outcome of that action. After the war Lowell went to Korea where again he did not see combat. I had the sense at the beginning of the day that he did not really feel he deserved all the appreciation being shown to him, afterall, he was not in combat. One of the things that struck me through the day is the number of people who where not part of Honor Flight that took the chance to come up to the vets and thank them, applaud them or just sit and listen to them. By the end of the day, one could see the sense of pride develop in Lowell and he began to understand how significant his role was to the war effort. He said thank you many times to me and he was so glad he went on this trip. I assured him it is we who thank him.
The personal experience I shared with my Dad is not something I can adequately put into words. I can say I learned some new things about my Dad’s experiences. My Dad was a radio gunner in a B-25. He was certainly in his element on this trip, sharing his stories with anyone who would listen. I over heard him mention he flew missions for the Battle of the Bulge. When I asked him why I hadn’t heard that before he said he was up in the air, he didn’t have it bad like the guys on the ground so he didn’t think it was that significant. I also came to a better realization that he has always struggled with his part in bombing and the resulting loss of life. He had watched friends go down in planes. My Dad flew 43 missions. Before each mission each crew member had a chance to back out of the mission, in case he had a “bad” feeling about it. Dad never refused a mission. His philosophy was that if it was God’s will that he not return from a mission, he would accept that with faith.
Beyond the dramatization in Hollywood, there truly is gallantry in bravery. Our men and women who have been and are now in the military are brave, and through their service they give for something bigger than themselves. They are serving to ensure the protection of our country and its people. We owe it to them to remember that what we ask of them in war is way beyond a demonstration of bravery, and our appreciation is not limited to waving a flag and cheering at parades. Don’t get me wrong, that demonstration of support is a vital part of patriotism and has helped many heal and feel appreciated. We must remember too, that combat is brutal. It is ugly, horrific and catastrophic. When we forget this part we do a disservice to our veterans. What we often ask of them is to lay not just their lives on the line but for those who survive combat to live with the horrors of war. What Honor Flight provides is not only appreciation for our service Men and Women but I saw that it also brings healing. On this trip, I saw smiles, I saw pride. I saw tears and I saw pain, and most importantly I saw healing and tremendous camaraderie. Our Veterans of all wars and conflicts need us. Their souls seek from us understanding compassion and from all of us who have benefited from their service, recognition that we appreciate what they have done for our country. Gentlemen, as I walked away from the airport with my Dad, I myself realized that what I did that day was not just me showing appreciation for our Vets. Indeed I was participating in something bigger than myself without realizing it. I really don’t know who got more out of the trip, my Dad or me. These vets were asked to sacrifice much for our country, physically and emotionally. Through Honor Flight their country, represented by us, were able in some way to give them what they need and deserve.
When we returned to the airport, there were literaly hundreds of people to welcome them home, including a band. My Dad just lit up when he saw Chris and Cy in full 4th degree regalia in the front of the crowd. Not only were the Knights represented at the welcoming they were allowed to be the ones to lead the vets down the escalator to the welcoming.
This generation put it all on the line for this country, and they asked nothing of this country except for the chance to be free. In my mind, we owe it to the generations past, and for future generations, to stand guard for the same promise of freedom. Please pray for those in the military past and present, who daily protect our country and our way of life. We owe them much.