Utah Honor Flight – 1,000 veterans and counting
by David Cordero
Several times a year in Utah, military veterans whose yesterday’s greatly outnumber their tomorrows agree to travel 3,000 miles to see memorials dedicated to their service. It is closure they seek, something they hope to obtain in the twilight of their life.
Utah Honor Flight is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that takes veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War to Washington, D.C. to see their memorials at no cost to the veterans. The veterans are accompanied by guardians – typically their adult children or adult grandchildren – during the three-day trip.
The gratitude expressed to them along the way – through ceremony and often by complete strangers – is what sticks with them. “I was so impressed with the young people,” says Ed Barberis, a St. George resident and Korean War veteran. “They were standing there – without their cell phones – thanking us for our service. I found that the spirit of our country is alive and kicking. What an experience!”
The national Honor Flight program began in 2004 when Ohio physician, Earl Morse, also a private pilot, flew a WWII veteran patient of his to Washington, D.C. to see the newly completed WWII Memorial. Other veterans showed interest in making the trip, and an idea was born.
In the ensuing years, Honor Flight hubs popped up around the nation. In 2013, Utah joined the mix. It started when Richfield resident, Frank Biagi, a Pearl Harbor survivor, saw television footage of WWII veterans having to negotiate barricades to see their memorials during the budget crisis when the government shutdown.
Biagi’s anger set some action in motion. His friend, Mike Turner teamed up with another Richfield resident and hastily put together the first Utah Honor Flight trip less than a month later. The junket attracted publicity from statewide media, and soon the Utah Honor Flight organization formed.
In April, UHF celebrated taking its 1,000th veteran to Washington, D.C. “Taking veterans to see their memorials is such a treat for us,” said UHF Chairman Mike Turner. “We must honor them while we can.”
Long wait worth it
Leona Marck was in pain last spring. It wasn’t so much from the fracture of her hip, which required surgery, but it was mental anguish. Because of her medical condition, she was unable to make the Utah Honor Flight trip out of St. George in April.
While Marck was devastated, the World War II Navy veteran was also determined. Marck put everything she had into rehabilitation. When her next opportunity came in late September, she was ready.
Marck was one of the most popular veterans on the trip, shaking so many hands she decided to wear gloves. While the appreciation she felt was valued, it was the little things that brought joy to her. On the flight out to the East Coast, all the veterans received mail call letters written by friends, family, and local school children. A former teacher, Marck beamed after reading a letter accompanied with a drawing by a Washington City fifth grader. “You have no idea how much I treasure this,” the 93-year-old said while 30,000 feet above the Midwest.
Getting their due
Typically, Vietnam veterans do not recall stirring homecomings. If it wasn’t indifference, their treatment upon return to the USA was that of outright scorn. Many of these veterans still haven’t recovered emotionally from the experience. In a small way, Utah Honor Flight wants to right this wrong.
UHF recently took its first all-Vietnam veteran group at the invitation of the National Archives, which in November opened a new exhibit, “Remembering Vietnam, Twelve Critical Episodes in the Vietnam War.” The National Archives asked UHF to be part of the ceremonial ribbon cutting.
“Not only was this trip emotional, it was also very healing for many of our Vietnam War veterans,” Turner said. “Several told me they had felt like ‘they had finally come home’ or that ‘the plane has finally landed.’ It was touching to hear that from these American heroes.”
While getting World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C. remains Utah Honor Flight’s most urgent mission due to the advanced age of the veterans, Turner says the organization isn’t too far off from taking additional all-Vietnam veteran flights. Interested veterans are urged to apply right away so they can be considered for an upcoming trip. Applicants are typically selected on a first-come, first-served basis. Applications can be downloaded at www.utahhonorflight.org.
David Cordero has written professionally for nearly two decades and is a board member of Utah Honor Flight. For information go to www.utahhonorflight.org.