Mary Paulsell is president of Central Missouri Honor Flight. Now in its fifth year, the group has made 23 flights to Washington, D.C., carrying nearly 1,300 veterans to visit the memorials to their service and sacrifice. Veterans and their families are encouraged to visit www.centralmissourihonorflight.com to download an application to enroll a veteran on an upcoming flight. Or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. This article originally published in Rural Missouri magazine, which you can find here.
The WWII veteran was apprehensive about the trip. His walk was shaky; he often used a cane. He tired easily and needed to make more frequent rest stops. The idea of going on such a long journey with strangers made him uncomfortable.
But his wife wanted him to go. His daughter helped him with the application. His son volunteered to drive to him to Columbia. He agreed to attend the pre-flight meeting, and if he decided he didn’t want to make the trip, he’d cancel so someone else could take his seat.
At the meeting, he met his guardian and the other veterans making the trip. His guardian was an Army veteran like himself. His WWII veteran cap matched many worn by the others. He wasn’t the only one with a cane. Some veterans used wheelchairs. A few used oxygen. Doctors and nurses went along, as well as firefighters and younger veterans. There would be plenty to eat and drink, time to rest on the plane and bus and frequent rest stops. He was issued a WWII veteran shirt. He signed some forms. He started to feel stronger and less anxious.
Early on flight day, even though he was still reluctant, he joined other veterans for breakfast. Then just as he had when he stepped on board the troop train 70 years ago, he stepped onto the bus and hoped for the best. He started chatting with other veterans, and before long, he started to feel like he was making new friends.
The flight was uneventful, but he wasn’t prepared for what happened next, when he and his fellow veterans were greeted by hundreds of travelers clapping and cheering as they made their way through the terminal. On the bus into Washington, they ate lunch and watched a video about the WWII memorial. Then, suddenly there before him was the amazing structure he had just seen on the screen. “Welcome to your memorial,” someone said. He started to feel proud.
Complete strangers thanked him for his service. He took some photos and posed for more. He stood before the wall of 4,000 gold stars, one for every 100 men and women who had given the full measure during the war. As the tour continued to other war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery, where in somber silence he remembered the fallen, he tried to brand each image into his memory so he could reflect on it later. He started to feel thankful.
On the return flight, during which letters from home were somehow magically delivered at 30,000 feet, he reflected on family, career and community. He read the words again and again — unspoken emotions that the years had preserved in the hearts and minds of those who loved him. He started to feel appreciated.
Among the day’s greatest surprises was the enormous crowd gathered at the hotel in Columbia – the hotel that had seemed too far away at the end of a flight that had seemed too overwhelming for him. As he passed beside the flags, escorted by those who had waited not just hours – but years – to welcome him home, he started to feel lighter, younger and at peace.
For on this one mission that he had waited decades to complete came the answer he had sought since he had set foot back on American soil in 1945. Had they made a difference, they who served, sacrificed, suffered and not returned? Had they done enough, been enough, fought enough? Would anyone care? Was the history dying with every veteran who lived it? Had they been forgotten?
As he listened to the cheering of the crowd, leaned over to kiss his wife, saw the tears in his daughter’s eyes and felt his son’s hand on his back, he knew.
And he started to feel like he was finally home.
This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.