WASHINGTON, D.C. - How do you get 91 aging veterans -- 61 of them in wheelchairs -- to Washington D.C. and back in one day? That's what the Honor Flight did Monday.
Newswatch 12's Lyndsey Stemm went along. Today, she takes a look at how this massive project got started, and the people who make it happen.
"They went back to work on their tractors, and in the factories, and the post office and made this country what it is today. So the "greatest generation" is not overrated by any stretch of the imagination. They've earned my undying gratitude," says Mike Thompson, Co-Founder of the Never Forgotten Honor Flight.
The "greatest generation"... many of us know them as our fathers; our grandfathers. The Honor Flight began because Washington D.C. finally had a WWII memorial. But many veterans from that war are getting too old to travel easily.
Mike Thompson and Jim Campbell started the Northern Wisconsin chapter. But they knew they were fighting time, so they started big.
"We knew the youngest WWII veteran was 82 years old. So without a nickel to our name we decided we needed $80,000 to fly. And at a sprinters pace we started the marathon to fly in five months," says Mike.
Thirteen trips later nearly 1,200 local veterans have gotten to see the memorials built in their honor. Many of those veterans have substantial health needs. But medical volunteers make it possible for them to go too.
"I've got to watch over these guys. Somehow they got old on us and so some of them aren't doing so well. So I spend a lot of time trying to make sure they're having an OK day. Managing oxygen, managing diabetes, you know, whatever we need to do," says Dr. Ryan Gossett, a volunteer medic who's been on every flight since it began.
It's a long day. It wouldn't happen without the scores of volunteers that help see the group off and welcome them home.
"It's really kind of thrilling to see these vets and the volunteers. I think giving back is very important. So that's why I volunteer, because I didn't go to war. But I'm here because they did," says Ann Lucas, a Volunteer from Wausau.
Many veterans resist going on the trip at first. Some don't feel like they played a big enough role in the war they were in.
"Whether it's the guys that were driving up on the beaches, or the guys delivering mail, they all served a role. And we try to help them appreciate that it's an entire system that needed to exist for the war effort," says Ryan.
Honoring that effort, however big or small, is the point of the honor flight. Anyone who didn't get the "thank you" and the "welcome home" they deserved will finally get one-- even if it is more than 60 years later.
Ryan remembers one vet who didn't even want to go home, "...he finally said, 'You know as soon as I go on that bus, I go back home and I'm the old guy that lives down the street. Today I'm a hero'. So that's what this is all about."
Mike remembers a vet from one of the first flights, "This veteran said, 'You know I got of that air plane and if I live to be 100 years old I'll never forget the sights and the sounds of that night'. He said, 'I feel like I won the war all by myself'."
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