COLUMBIA — Ray Bassett was standing on the lower level of the World War II monument in Washington, D.C., when he heard a man above him say, "I feel guilty."
Bassett turned and asked him why.
What: Welcome veterans home as they return from Washington, D.C.
Where: The Courtyard by Marriott, 3301 LeMone Industrial Blvd.
When: Tuesday, May 7. Organizers would like attendees to arrive no later than 11:30 p.m.
For more information, contact Central Missouri Honor Flight at 256-1930.
"I was in the landing at Normandy," the man said. "We were crawling on our bellies, bullets whistling overhead, and I turned around to tell my friend something and he didn’t move.
"I feel bad that I came home and he didn’t."
Bassett, who fought in both World War II and the Korean War, could empathize with the fellow veteran. Both had gone to the nation's capital on a Central Missouri Honor Flight to see the memorials dedicated to them.
For Bassett and for others, the trip was a chance to honor those who went to war and those who never came back.
To date, Central Missouri Honor Flight has flown 1,214 veterans on 21 flights to Washington, D.C. The 22nd flight is scheduled for May 7.
The non-profit organization was established in central Missouri in early 2009. It is one of 21 hubs covering 41 states.
The organization’s mission is to fly veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam to visit the memorials built in their honor at no cost to them. Through the end of 2012, the national Honor Flight Network had flown more than 98,500 World War II veterans to visit their memorials in Washington, D.C.
Each trip out of central Missouri flies 70 to 75 veterans. World War II and terminally ill veterans get top priority, and the “vast majority” of veterans who participate in Honor Flight are from World War II, said President Mary Paulsell. The program is beginning to take more Korean War veterans, and has flown a “handful” of veterans from the Vietnam War.
For veterans, Honor Flight is a chance to talk about memories they may have tried to erase. Many veterans who travel with Honor Flight find closure in the experience, Bassett said.
"It's a way for some of these veterans to close the books of their lives and say 'I've been there, I've talked about it, now I can check out,'" he said.
The central Missouri region has been extremely supportive of Honor Flight’s mission, Paulsell said.
“People all over the state continue to support this and continue to raise money,” she said. “What they did is not forgotten.”
The program includes both veterans and “guardians,” people who pay their own way to accompany the veterans and tend to their needs. Usual qualifications for guardians are medical training and a strong back, said Shelley Becker, a community relations coordinator for Central Missouri Honor Flight
Veterans and their guardians complete the trip to Washington, D.C. in a single day, leaving at about 1 or 2 a.m. and return home shortly after midnight.
“The longer the night goes on, the younger the men appear,” Becker said.
Sometimes there’s a wrench in Honor Flight’s efficient plans. Becker said the group once had a three-hour layover in Baltimore due to an airline mix-up. Those three hours, though, were some of the most memorable of her life.
“What do you do with 80- and 90-year-old men in an airport for three hours? You set them together and let them talk,” she said.
The men told their stories of past battles, razzed each other and discussed the shrapnel still lodged in their bodies. Becker said she felt privileged to hear their conversation. “It was three hours I’ll never forget,” she said.
No matter which branch of service or where they fought, Bassett says the veterans find comfort in and common ground in each other's company.
"They don't talk about their experiences with their family, but they talk about them with each other," he said. "There's an element of trust and a relationship there."
Flying to Washington to see the memorials is, for some veterans, the only thank-you for their service they've ever gotten, Bassett said.
Becker, who sometimes accompanies flights as an accountability officer, says the veterans’ reactions are always moving.
“It still makes me cry, visibly cry, seeing the expressions on their faces when they visit the memorial dedicated to their particular service,” she said.
Though the veterans are getting on in years, Becker said appearances are deceiving. “Inside they’re 18-, 19-, 20-year-old men who saved the world," she said. "They are the greatest generation.”
Have you had a personal experience with Honor Flight? Read one Columbia family's first-person experience here, and share your own by emailing submissions@ColumbiaMissourian.com.