By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
In May of 2004, the World War II Memorial was completed and dedicated in Washington, D.C. During the following year, a retired Air Force Captain working as a physician assistant in Ohio gathered the help of some of his fellow veteran flyers and put together a trip that brought tears to many older veterans.
The main stipulation was that there would be no expense whatsoever involved for the veterans who would make the trip. He and his volunteers made it happen, taking 12 World War II veterans in six small private planes. Since then, the effort has grown and out it the Honor Flight program evolved.
Now there are 130 Honor Flight hubs in 42 of the 50 states in the USA and the waiting list to participate continues to grow. Although commercial airline carriers are now used, the same important rule applies – it is entirely expense free for veterans to take part!
The foremost reasons veterans have been so delighted with this opportunity are three valid obstacles that kept them from visiting their memorial: their advancing age, their physical conditions, and the financial aspect. Honor Flight overcomes all of these obstacles through donations and volunteerism.
Tanya Cayton is the Marketing Director for McNeer, Highland, McMunn and Varner, and she is also the Huntington Honor Flight Coordinator for North Central West Virginia. She is pleased to announce that an Honor Flight has been scheduled to leave North Central WV Airport on October 7th of this year. American Airlines will depart that day with 100 veterans on board to visit memorials and points of interest in the nation’s capital. Already, 40 have signed up.
“Not only is it a very emotional experience for the veterans, but it is equally as emotional for all involved,” Cayton stated. “For every two veterans, there are 50 ‘guardians’ who are all volunteers assigned to travel with them throughout the trip. We also have bus captains on each bus when they arrive and travel from the airport to the memorials, and each bus is staffed by four medical personnel just in case an emergency of some sort would arise. Our bus captains and medical personnel are also all volunteers!”
Cayton explained that the first Honor Flight in West Virginia departed from Huntington; however, two volunteer guardians, both from Fairmont, wanted to bring this opportunity to Clarksburg. She has been involved in making this happen for the past couple of years.
Honor Flight was brought to parts of West Virginia in 2013, and it covers an area encompassing not just the Mountain State, but also parts of Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Since its inception here in WV, the Honor Flight program has taken almost 700 veterans on seven separate flights from Clarksburg and Huntington. The flight scheduled for October 7th will be the fourth flight from NCWV Airport; the last was in May of 2016.
“This is a huge undertaking – particularly because it is cost-free to veterans,” Cayton added. “The expense is pretty great! Each flight costs roughly around $60,000 and is funded through the help of local businesses throughout the community. This year there has been a $12,000 increase in the airline cost, so we are really relying on our donors being even more generous this year.”
Contributors to the May, 2016 Honor Flight included: McNeer, Highland, McMunn and Varner, L.C., North Central WV Airport, Tracy Miller from Mid Atlantic Aerospace Complex, Will and Mary Mutschelknaus, Harrison County Rotary Club, First Energy, Frontier Communications and several other north central West Virginia businesses. Many of them will also be extending donations for the October, 2017 Honor Flight.
Cayton says she is willing to take on this task because it is important and so appreciated by the veterans. “I also have a great group of volunteers, and with Shawn Long and Rick Rock from NCWVA helping in the process, I have no doubt we will meet our goal!” she continued.
Rick Rock, Director of NCWVA, says, “The Honor Flight is the most important event held each year at our airport. To be able to give back to the men in our community who have served our country is a great feeling. The excitement and joy they express upon their return help us to understand just how fantastic this program is.”
The Honor Flight day will begin at 5:30 a.m. at North Central WV Airport where the veterans and guardians will pair up and enjoy a catered breakfast at the airport prior to departure. When they land at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport later that morning, they will receive a heartwarming welcome from hundreds of civilians.
Cayton explained that because Honor Flight is a national organization, there will be several flights from several different states coming in that same day. It is publicized in advance, and, thankfully, many who are grateful for the service and sacrifice the veterans have given, show up to greet them on this special day.
The veterans will then travel by bus to several monuments and museums, and they are treated to dinner before boarding for their return flight around 8 p.m. that evening.
“During their trip home, the veterans receive ‘mail call’ where each veterans receives cards and letters of thanks prepared especially for them by students from area middle and high schools, churches and various civic organizations. You can’t believe how touched they are by these personal letters of thanks,” Cayton related. “They are truly moved to tears! It makes all of our efforts so worthwhile … and often it is just as moving an experience for the guardians to watch as it is for the veterans themselves.”
Jim Riley, President of McNeer, Highland, McMunn and Varner, says, “Our firm is proud of the military service and sacrifices of our veterans. We hope the public will join us at the airport when these gentlemen return after their flight in October. Witnessing their arrival back home is truly an unforgettable experience!”
Cayton says that in addition to the general public, there are many groups who attend their return arrival. They will be greeted by the East Fairmont Busy Bee Band, the ROTC from Lincoln High School, the Hogs for Heroes motorcycle organization, members of the VFW, the Honor Guard, and various area American Legion organizations.
“Typically we have about 500 people at the airport to welcome these veterans home!” she stated. “Seeing their reaction is something people will not soon forget.”
World War II veterans and those veterans who are terminally ill are given first preference for seats on the Honor Flights. However, eligibility is also open to veterans of the Korean War and Vietnam. Those interested in obtaining an application should contact area Honor Flight Coordinator Tanya Cayton by calling 304-624-1100 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. ‘Guardians’ for veterans on board the Honor Flight are also needed; those interested should contact Cayton in the same manner.
Any business, organization or individual who would like to make a monetary donation to Honor Flight may mail a check (payable to Huntington Honor Flight) to McNeer, Highland, McMunn & Varner at 400 W. Main Street, Clarksburg, WV 26302-2040. Please write on the memo line ‘for Clarksburg’ so that your donation will go toward making this trip possible for local veterans.
Veteran Crawford Byrd got very emotional during ‘mail call’. Regardless of the amount of time that has gone by since their military service, veterans are deeply touched by the handwritten ‘thank you’s’ they receive!