In 2004, shortly after the national World War II Memorial was completed, Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain working at the Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield, Ohio, realized that many of the veterans he knew would never get to see it.
So he persuaded pilots at his local flying club to ferry a handful of veterans to Washington on small planes, and accompany them to the National Mall.
Jeff Miller, who owns a dry cleaning company in Hendersonville, N.C., soon added chartered commercial jets to the impromptu enterprise.
From there blossomed an entire organization, known as the Honor Flight Network, which since 2005 has carried nearly a quarter-million veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars to Washington.
“Our mission is to transport our veterans to visit the memorials that are dedicated to honoring their sacrifice,” said Meredith Rosenbeck, the chief executive of the network, which now has 120 hubs nationwide.
Each hub relies on donations and operates independently — with some chartering planes, others getting space on commercial flights — to ferry veterans free of charge to visit the three main memorials as well as a few other sites. “Eventually it is our hope we will expand into Desert Storm and gulf war veterans,” Ms. Rosenbeck said.
Last month, a group of 85 veterans from central Illinois, most from the Vietnam era, arrived at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Other travelers were encouraged to gather from nearby gates, their hands clutching roller bags and Starbucks cups.
Volunteers, including Ken Seroka, who has met 30 flights over the years, had joined them. “The military has always been in my heart,” said Mr. Seroka, 69, as the plane cut through the clouds.
The veterans emerged, several of them pushed in wheelchairs by their companions (each veteran is assigned one), a few weeping as they walked into the terminal to be met by whoops and applause. “Walking through that airport when we landed was the most emotional experience I’ve had in relation to the Vietnam War,” said Mike Sims, who served in the Air Force. “I’ve never had anything like it.”
It was the first trip to Washington for many of the veterans, who ranged from those who never left their bases in the United States during conflicts to others with multiple service awards. Their companions had been trained on how to properly push a wheelchair, how to assist with oxygen and other tasks related to aiding their largely older visitors, who piled onto a series of buses from the airport. Color commentary was provided by an escort on each bus: “Hey, there is the Bureau of Printing!”
The caravan was accompanied into downtown Washington by a police escort, to the delight of the passengers — but not so much rush-hour commuters.
The veterans wore T-shirts with colors that identified them by their conflict. Tourists stopped them to shake their hands or take photos. Sometimes, school-age children stared at them with slight confusion.
“There are some people who are real liberal, who have wholly different view of things going on today,” said Tom Yohe, 68, who served in the Navy during Vietnam and made the journey via Illinois from Hemet, Calif. “I understand that. But they have to understand that when we joined the service, we did what we were told and we didn’t complain.”
Jack Blakenbeker, 89, stared at the Korean War Veterans Memorial as if its statues of soldiers were in motion. “See, those are the rice paddies over there,” he said, pointing. “I was in a Raider company. We just chased guerrillas all over the place. I could talk to you all day about this, the things that happened then that you can talk about now.”
“You had a good friend and then the next day you didn’t. Young men. Good men. How I made it, I don’t know,” he continued. “The people who lived in Korea, they paid the ultimate price. I have waited 68 years to see this. I thought I’d never make it but I’m here. I keep crying because it is so very touching.”
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, veterans were encouraged to find the names of friends on the wall, and several said they were transported for the first time back to the cities, towns and villages of that nation. “It makes you think about what you were doing,” said Lowell Spiker, 74. “Things we did are kind of shocking in a way, but you did them to survive. You understand it a little better now but, by the same token, we are doing them all again.”
This trip, like most, included a stop at Arlington National Cemetery, with a chance to watch the changing of the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Three Marines who served in Vietnam made the trip together, and stared intently at the Marine Corps War Memorial’s depiction of the raising of an American flag over the Japanese island of Iwo Jima.
“When I came off the plane and people were clapping, I felt guilty,” Harold Bruso said. “I can’t express it. Probably because of the way we were treated when we got back. I went to my sisters’ in Southern California and we were pelted with eggs and tomatoes. I never wore my uniform again. I had a French lady on this trip come up and say, ‘Thank you.’ I was shocked. I shouldn’t be. But I am.”
While women are an increasingly large cohort among veterans, only two were on this trip. Marti Williams, 64, who served in the Air Force in the Vietnam era, said her family did not approve of her joining the service, assuming she was in search of a husband.
“I wanted to leave my small town and see the world,” she said. She learned to be an air traffic controller but did not stay beyond two years. “I had seen enough,” she said. “The women were hit on quite a bit.”
Many of the other women she met had joined because “they were dirt poor,” she added. “The military allowed them to get medical care and dentistry.”
After an exhausting day visiting the memorials, a flight museum and Arlington cemetery, eating a box lunch on the bus and grabbing a dinner back at the airport, it was time to go home. Cookies from a hometown baker were served aboard the flight, and each veteran received a swag bag, delivered via “mail call” as their names, service branch, conflict and awards were read over the plane’s public address system.
Even on a cold night in the driving rain, hundreds of local residents — at least one dressed in full Revolutionary War regalia — greeted the old warriors as they deplaned, led by a local bagpipe player.
Timothy Seifert, who volunteers as an escort, recalled the first honor flight he made with his father, who fought in the Korean War and has since died. The two ran a farm together, he said, but on that trip, “We didn’t talk about farming. We talked about his service. He has since passed away. I would have never known those stories had we not made that trip.”
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