Kansas Honor Flight has reach 104 of 105 counties
More than 3,600 Kansas veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War from 104 of the state’s 105 counties have taken organized group trips to visit military and war memorial sites in Washington, D.C., thanks to the Kansas Honor Flight organization.
Formed in 2012, the all-volunteer organization is part of the Honor Flight Network, which started in 2005 to take veterans to the nation’s capital to see the memorials and monuments dedicated to their service and sacrifice. There are nearly 130 hubs across the country that organize all-expenses-paid honor flights, and the Kansas Honor Flight group is one of the few that spends two nights and three days in D.C. versus a one-day trip.
“We do a lot of things while there, and we don’t rush them, we let them take their time,” said David Blanding, a Navy veteran in Wichita who has been volunteering with the organization since Kansas Honor Flight No. 32. “We hit Fort McHenry National Monument, the Air Force Memorial, the Navy Memorial, the Marine Corps War Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. Then we go to the National Mall where they get to see the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. We also go to the National Archives Museum. We have a special banquet for them the first night, then they get a night of relaxation before we fly home the next morning.”
Through September of this year, Kansas Honor Flight had flown 590 WWII veterans, 870 Korean War veterans and 2,210 Vietnam War veterans. The organization’s 93rd flight was scheduled to depart Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport the day this magazine went to print with another 107 veterans on board the chartered Southwest Airlines flight.
One of the veterans planning to make the Oct. 17-19 trip was Jim Bell, a trustee for Pioneer Electric Cooperative in southwest Kansas. He grew up in Moscow, Kansas, and in 1959 went to San Diego for basic training as a U.S. Navy recruit. He returned to Moscow — where he now lives — in 1963 after being stationed on several aircraft carriers and in Alaska performing ship maintenance. He returned to the family farm, then went to work for Duke Energy, where he retired in 2002.
Now 84, he said he was looking forward to seeing the memorials and sharing the experience with his son, Allen, who was driving in from Colorado to accompany him on the trip. The two will be greeted when they return to the airport in Wichita by family members coming from South Dakota and several places in Kansas.
Because he wasn’t involved in a battle, Bell wasn’t sure he qualified for an honor flight. He said he learned that he should sign up from fellow veterans, including Gene Scheer, a longtime trustee for Sedgwick County Electric Cooperative who lives near Garden Plain.
“You don’t have to have been in the battle — everyone should go if they have the opportunity,” said Scheer, a 74-year-old U.S. Army veteran who served 1968-70 during the Vietnam War and was stationed in Korea.
Scheer’s Kansas Honor Flight was delayed by about 18 months due to the pandemic. He took flight No. 81 in September 2021, and while he had visited D.C. on weekends while stationed at nearby Fort Belvoir, there were new and remodeled memorials to see.
His brother Jim, a Korean War veteran, had gone a couple years earlier and encouraged his brother to sign up for a flight. To cover the organization’s cost for their flights, as well as a brother-in-law who went in spring 2022, they’ve been collecting cans and scrap metal that they sell to a recycling center in Wichita. They hauled 6,000 pounds in 2021 and through September had hauled 4,600 pounds this year using collection boxes in Garden Plain, Kingman and Andale. All the money they earn from the effort continues to go to Kansas Honor Flight.
The average cost to send a veteran is $900, which comes from donations; the organization does not receive funding from federal, state or local governments. Among the donors are individuals like the Scheers and businesses including Butler Electric Cooperative, which has used funds from members who choose to round up their bill each month to sponsor flights for 16 Butler County veterans since 2018.
Volunteers across the state help run fundraisers including pancake feeds and golf tournaments, and volunteers closer to Wichita also help with departure and welcome home events. A few volunteers also go on the flights to coordinate each group of veterans. More volunteers are needed, Blanding said, including folks to assist the organization in reaching veterans in every corner of Kansas.
Scheer and other past participants sharing their experiences also help to get the word out. Visiting the sites was fascinating, he said, but his excitement went up a notch when he talked about the welcome home experience that is part of the honor flight.
“Now that was awesome,” Scheer said. “When the plane taxis in on the tarmac, they have fire trucks out there spraying the plane. You have all those people meeting you when you walk in and there is a band playing. That part can really get to you emotionally.”
He had 20 to 25 family members among the crowd of several hundred who gathered to welcome them home. Blanding said it’s common for the welcome home to be as impactful for a veteran as their time in D.C.
“Thankfully things today are different than they were in the past as far as people celebrating our military returning home,” Blanding said. “Those from World War II, Korea and Vietnam really didn’t get their welcome home. The Vietnam era veterans were told to change their clothes before they flew home and some were called names. The Korean War was given the nickname of the forgotten war, and they didn’t really receive a welcome home either. A lot of people don’t realize that while World War II veterans got huge welcomes at the beginning, it took quite a while to get all the veterans sent back home so a lot of those later returning WWII veterans never got a welcome home. So we look at this trip as closure. They see their memorials, they remember their friends who came home with them and the ones who never came home, and then they come home and get that final ‘we’re proud of you’ welcome.”
Know Someone Who Qualifies for a Kansas Honor Flight?
Honor flights are for anyone who served in World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War, regardless of where they served. It’s easy to sign up for an all-expenses-paid honor flight by completing an application at www.kansashonorflight.org.
Kansas Honor Flight schedules four charter flights each year and currently has about 390 veterans on a waiting list who will fly in 2023. Veterans are called in the order they submit their applications with priority given to WWII and any veterans deemed to be terminally ill.
The national Honor Flight Network’s website lists eight hubs in Kansas. In addition to Kansas Honor Flight, there are seven listed at high schools in Hartford, Holton, LeRoy, Lyndon, Parsons/Chetopa/St. Paul, Richmond and Wamego.
Veterans needing assistance during the trip can invite someone to accompany them as a guardian, and the guardian is asked to make a contribution to cover their own expenses. The high school hubs pair students as guardians to travel with the veterans for a better understanding of the impact of these historic wars.
If interested in donating to Kansas Honor Flight, please visit www.kansashonorflight.org/donate.
photos courtesy of Kansas Honor Flight