Heartland Honor Flight in DC

Last week I was fortunate enough to be a guardian on an Honor Flight out of Kansas City. We took 90 vets, the largest Heartland Honor Flight to date. I arrived at the airport about 15 minutes before we were supposed to and most of the vets were already inside or in line. They were so excited, you just just tell by the look on their face. My vet said that he was up every hour the night before because he just couldn’t sleep. One of the other vets said that he lives a mile from KCI but woke up at 2:15am, because he was not going to miss this flight.

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For many of the vets, this was their first trip to DC and for some, their first time on an airplane in decades. One vet hadn’t flown in 20 years. He did say that some of the flight attendants were “pretty cute.”

Once I got into the gate, I found my vet, Lester!

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It was quite a party at the airport- Krispy Kreme had supplied donuts and everyone looked great in their official Honor Flight Vet and Guardian shirts. The vets got these hats, which they really loved, and they had a great time going around to see who else had the same color hat (which meant that they were on your bus).

Our flight was a US Airways charter and they did a superb job of taking care of the guys. Once we touched down in DC, there was a pretty neat surprise waiting for us. They had fire trucks positioned on either side of the plan to do a “sprinkle of love” over the plane as we taxied to the gate.

“Wow, they do this to every plane?” one vet inquired. “No, dad, this is just for you guys.”

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As I wheeled Lester off the plane, we could hear music and cheers coming from inside the terminal. I wasn’t able to get many photos (it’s harder to wheel and take pictures than you would think!) but the DC Honor Flight group did a wonderful job of welcoming the guys to the airport. There were a lot of misty eyes as we made our way out to the busses.

Once we got outside, there was another surprise: the bikers!

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We were supposed to have a security escort to the WWII Memorial, but due to the shutdown a lot of our plans went out the window. So these bikers escorted us to the Memorial. Pretty cool!

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One of the things that was really touching was how people went out of their way to make these vets feel special. From people driving past us who would roll down their window and cheer, to groups of tourists who started clapping as we walked by, there were a lot of great people who really made these vets’ day.

Thanks to the shutdown, there had been a lot of worries about whether or no we would be able to get into the Memorial. On the bus ride over, the vets were told that they had faced much bigger obstacles than whatever barriers the NPS may have erected at the site. “If someone tries to stop you from seeing your memorial, give ‘em hell.” The bus erupted in cheers.

When we arrived, there was quite a crowd. Media, politicians and people there to watch lined the sidewalks.

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We were told that the Park Rangers “went on break” when we arrived, so we marched our vets right on into the WWII Memorial. Lester had never been, and he asked me to roll him around the entire thing so he could just look. We stopped at Missouri to take a picture.
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Isn’t that just the greatest picture you’ve ever seen? I’ve been to DC over a dozen times, but none of my trips compared to this one. The monuments that I’ve seen before and can just look past, the vets just stood there in awe.

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My friend Vara is a law student at GW, so she left class early to meet us there! Lester told me later that he got to be escorted by two pretty girls, not like the rest of those “ugly guys.”

As we left, this older vet was saluting to all the Honor Flight vets, who were saluting back. The Park Rangers were shaking the vets hands and thanking them for their service.

Our next stop was Arlington National Cemetery to watch the Changing of the Guards.I did a full blog post on that stop here. We did a quick stop at the Vietnam, Korean and Lincoln Memorials as well.
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This is my favorite photo from the trip. For most people, it’s an inanimate wall linked to a far off war. Many of these guys had friends who died in these wars. They understand what it represents.

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Unfortunately, the Marine Corps Memorial was totally closed and the Iwo Jima Memorial was closed as well, but we were able to at least drive by and see that one.

After a long day on the ground, we headed back to the airport. When we got back to the DC airport, the DC Honor Flight crew was there to welcome us back. They even had big band music playing in our terminal and ladies there to dance with the vets. It was a nice touch to help keep the guys entertained for the 2 hour wait we had at the airport.

While the sightseeing portion of the trip was over, there were a few more surprises in store for these guys! On the way back, they did “mail call” where each vet received a packet of mail from loved ones and friends, as well as letters from strangers thanking them for their service. I don’t think there was a dry eye on the plane.

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Meanwhile, back in Kansas City a crowd was gathering at KCI. We worked really hard to make sure there was a good crowd at the airport to welcome these guys home and give them a really awesome end to their trip. Kansas City did not disappoint!

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When we landed and my dad text me this scene from the airport I was thrilled! The vets had no idea there would be a crowd waiting for them at the airport so it was an awesome surprise. As I wheeled Lester off the plane we could hear the cheers and clapping as soon as we stepped onto the ramp. When we walked out into the gate, there were people as far as the eye could see. They formed a tunnel from one end of the terminal to the other and it was really incredible. Most people shook the vets’ hand and thanked them for their service. There were current military members in uniform, KCPD officers, school groups and people from the community. The vets were just overwhelmed.
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Here’s some video of the homecoming. I’m so proud of Kansas City for giving these guys the welcome home they deserve!

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