May 04, 2015

A Memorial Salute to Veterans

A group of veterans, seated in wheelchairs, visit the World War II memorial.
André Chung

Frederick Makoveck, an army veteran from Burlington, Wisc., visits the memorial with his daughter, Kandace Lennartz.

When veterans gather in Washington this month to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the crowd will include heroes who have waited a lifetime to see the memorial honoring their service and sacrifice. Some of them will be there thanks to Honor Flight, a charity that provides veterans free transportation to Washington so they can visit the stirring granite monument.

"For many of these World War II veterans, this is the first and likely the last opportunity for them to see a memorial that was 60 years in the making," says Diane Gresse, Honor Flight’s executive director.

The Ohio charity got its start in 2005 when Earl Morris, a physician’s assistant at a veterans clinic, realized that many of his patients lacked the strength or money to travel to Washington, where the World War II memorial had just been completed.

Today, Honor Flight operates out of 133 airport hubs in 43 states and has helped 138,000 veterans travel to Washington. The group’s exponential growth hasn’t been enough to keep up with demand, though; 22,000 veterans are now on waiting lists.

Fundraising for the trips, which cost roughly $600 per veteran, takes place at the local level. Since 2008, Southwest Airlines has donated more than $3 million in free travel.

Transporting the veterans to Washington involves volunteers, including family members and individuals who just want to hang out with a hero for the day, says Ms. Gresse.

"It’s like taking Abe Lincoln to his memorial," she says. "You get to hear stories that people have never heard before."

While the charity’s original focus was World War II veterans, it now also includes veterans who served during the Korean and Vietnam wars. "This is a small way for us to say, ‘Your service hasn’t been forgotten,’ " says Ms. Gresse.