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Honor Flight Network marks milestone

Eighteen years ago, more than 150,000 people gathered on the National Mall to dedicate the National World War II Memorial. Presidents, statesmen and historians paid tribute to the many veterans who had come to see the long overdue monument.

During the ceremony, my late husband, Bob Dole, a veteran of that war, described the memorial as “not a memorial to war. Rather it is a tribute to the physical and moral courage that makes heroes out of farm and city boys, and inspires Americans in every generation to lay down their lives for people they will never meet, for ideals that make life itself worth living.”
From the stage, Bob could see his fellow veterans, and said of them, “Proud of their country, they let their tears flow freely.”

Only 240,000 WWII veterans survive

Almost 59 years had passed between the end of the war and the dedication of the memorial. The pride and emotions felt by those who served had not diminished, but time had certainly taken its toll on the number of veterans able to see the grand monument built in their honor. Sixteen million Americans served during World War II. Today, an estimated 240,000 survive.
After completing the hard-fought campaign to build the memorial, there was great concern about how to enable more veterans to experience it for themselves. Considering that the World War II generation was scattered across the country and many struggled with health and mobility issues, there were no easy answers.

Fortunately, as has happened so many times throughout our nation’s history, ordinary Americans worked together to solve the problem in extraordinary fashion.
Two proud members of military families, Earl Morse and Jeff Miller, launched campaigns to get veterans to Washington. Morse recruited volunteer pilots. Miller coordinated chartered jets from his base in Hendersonville. Soon, patriotic individuals stepped up to cover the cost, and volunteers joined the journeys to help participants who might need an arm to lean on or someone to push their wheelchair.
Then, crowds appeared — at airports, memorials and along stretches of highway — to give the veterans a hero’s welcome.
This incredible grassroots effort — an example of our nation at its best — grew into the Honor Flight Network. Today, the network is made up of nearly 130 hubs throughout the country. Each hub is powered by local volunteers and homegrown fundraisers. Together, they bring more than 22,000 veterans to Washington, D.C., every year.

Flights have honored 250,000 veterans

In May, the Honor Flight Network marked the milestone of transporting 250,000 veterans, and the veterans on these trips have represented the broad diversity of those who have served.
Such an incredible achievement is certainly reason to celebrate. At the same time, the occasion should remind our nation that the mission to bring our veterans to Washington grows more urgent, as more than 230 World War II veterans are lost every day.

The opportunity to transport veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars is also precious, and Honor Flight has generously expanded its mission to serve these veterans as well.
The aging of our veterans, combined with dozens of trips canceled during the pandemic, has generated the longest waitlist in the organization’s history — 50,000 veterans.
This is a cause for our nation to rally around. While every American can offer their support through the Honor Flight’s national office, the local hubs are always looking for volunteers to recruit veterans, organize trips and cheer on the participants for a patriotic welcome home.

I witnessed the moving moments made possible by these trips when Bob and I would spend our Saturdays greeting veterans at the World War II Memorial.
They were often tearful, just as they were at the memorial’s dedication. Such emotion was obvious at the other memorials, as veterans ran their hands over familiar young faces etched into the Korean War Veterans Memorial and along the names of friends engraved on the memorial for the Vietnam War.
Our national memorials show our veterans that their sacrifices hold a permanent place in our country’s heart, and these heroes deserve to experience the full weight of our nation’s appreciation before it is too late.

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Elizabeth Dole, a Salisbury, N.C., native, served as U.S. secretary of Transportation, U.S. secretary of Labor and U.S. senator from North Carolina. Mrs. Dole chaired  the Honor Flight 250K Participant Commemoration Event in Washington, D.C., on May 3.