Northport VA Medical Center
Honor Flight Long Island brings WWII vets to D.C.
Twice a year, spring and fall, a plane takes off from Long Island MacArthur Airport loaded with World War II veterans bound for the nation’s capital. Honor Flight Long Island (HFLI) exists to bring members of the “Greatest Generation” to the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The most recent trip began at 8 a.m. on May 17 with a flight into Baltimore, where the fire department greeted the senior patriots by shooting plumes of water in an arc over the aircraft. And when “honor flight” was announced over the speakers in the boarding areas, other passengers left their gates to pay respect.
“People line the concourse, applaud, shake their hands and welcome them to Baltimore,” said Philip Bates, biomedical equipment support specialist, HFLI board member, and U.S. Navy veteran. “That’s their first taste of the experience.”
Afterward, the veterans, and accompanying guardians who assist them, boarded luxury buses escorted by motorcycles into D.C.
“We spend about 2 hours at the memorial, reflecting, telling stories, and reading the different battles engraved in the granite,” said Bates. “We also try to view a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and see some other memorials, but our primary goal is to get them to the World War II Memorial.”
Longtime VAMC Volunteer Olga D. Smith, 91, a WWII vet who spent two years in the U.S. Navy with the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), was happy to see the memorial during the May trip, and appreciated that it was all-encompassing. It honored everyone involved, from military heroes to factory workers, she said.
“It was a moving experience,” said Smith. “You have to cry because you remember all the men who gave up their lives for the American Dream and our democracy.”
The memorial, which was completed in 2004, some 60 years after the end of WWII, is a special place for both veterans and guardians like Dr. Edward Weissman, Northport’s Internal Medicine section chief. For him, the trip was cathartic.
“Walking around there, I was thinking what it would‘ve been like to take my own father,” Weissman said. “A lot of these guys were like my dad. So it was upsetting to me, and it still is, come to think about it. On the bus and plane, these guys were talking about their experiences—stuff I’ve never heard in my own family.”
Weissman also found it emotional because of how difficult it was for him to get his patient, a former prisoner of war, to go to the memorial. Just the act of visiting it can dredge up old memories.
According to Bates, HFLI needs more program awareness, which he and his wife, Tina, who also is an HFLI board member and VA employee, work to promote. This is a free trip for the veteran. From the flight to the snacks to the buffet meal to the personalized book that each veteran receives, there is no cost. A photographer is on hand to capture moments that are put into a hardcover book with the veteran’s picture on the front cover and presented two months later at a reunion.
Another way HFLI makes the trip special is through mail call. Both Bates and Weissman got emotional when describing how on the bus ride back from the memorial to Baltimore, they performed mail call. As it was during the war—when letters were all they had to link them back to their loved ones—veterans’ names were called and they were handed cards and letters written by Long Island school children and family members.
“Watching them open a letter and realize it’s from their grandchildren, well, it’s very powerful,” said Bates. “They read them and it’s really touching, especially when they have no idea that they are getting these letters from family members back home. We try to make it as special a day as we can.”
Smith, a 21-year volunteer at Northport’s VAMC, said, “They did a classy job. They really did. It was a wonderful trip, and so nice for someone to remember us.”
Honor flight Long Island has been around since 2007, and has taken 1,250 WWII veterans to the memorial. An estimated 11,000 WWII vets remain on Long Island, so there still is work to do, Bates said. The next flight is planned for late September/early October. WWII veterans/guardians may fill out a trip application by visiting www.honorflightlongisland.org.