COLUMBIA — When you're entrusted with the care of 60-plus veterans in their 80s and 90s, it's important to make sure that every detail is covered.
Besides making sure that all of the paperwork is in order, all of the veterans are contacted and all of the T-shirts are distributed, there are finishing touches that need attention.
Someone makes sure there are enough lap blankets on hand during the flight in case the veterans get cold. Another volunteer makes sure that water and snacks are available.
It takes about 100 volunteers to make every flight a safe, smooth and enjoyable experience, Mary Paulsell, president of the Central Missouri Honor Flight, said. Most of the volunteers are people whose family members have gone on previous flights.
"Some are sons and daughters of veterans who’ve flown with us who are from all over central Missouri," she said. "Some have kids in the military and some are people who have heard about Honor Flight and said, 'I want to volunteer.'"
Then there’s the crew that flies with them.
For Tuesday’s flight, 43 volunteers paid their own way for the privilege of escorting the veterans to Washington, D.C. They include:
- Firefighter/EMTs who make sure wheelchairs get on and off the bus expeditiously.
- Accountability officers who make sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be and no one gets lost.
- Two doctors on each bus who are ready and trained to take care of any emergencies that might arise and are acquainted with everyone’s medical needs.
- A photographer who captures the trip and presents each veteran with a CD of hundreds of photos at the end of the trip.
- Guardians who see to the needs of the handful of veterans they’re assigned to care for on the trip. Guardians are usually younger veterans themselves or have medical training.
- A flight director who is in charge of managing the logistics of the group’s travel and orchestrates it all.
For Steve Paulsell, former chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District and Mary Paulsell’s brother, his role as flight director is the "greatest job in the world." He’s directed each of the 17 flights from mid-Missouri and considers spending time with the veterans on each flight an honor.
His job and main concern is making sure that the group gets to all of the places on its itinerary safely.
"We don’t want to end up in a position where we have to push too hard where we risk any safety issues with these folks," he said. "They’re very fragile. But we want to make sure we get to the sites we planned to get to so that they get to see everything they deserve to see."
In order to ensure the veterans are well cared for, Steve Paulsell relies heavily on the guardians who go along to push wheelchairs, point out hazards and help the veterans safely move through the day.
"There are a lot of people ensuring their safety along the way," he said. "We want them to enjoy and appreciate the day."
He said the time and energy it takes to orchestrate everything for the veterans is an honor in itself.
"After everything these people did for our nation, it’s the least we can do," he said. "I think everybody looks at it the same way. I just wish that we’d had the opportunity to do it 60 years ago."