By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD News & Journal Editor
The (non-profit) Honor Flight program was conceived in 2005 with its sole mission to transport America’s veterans (totally free of charge) to Washington, D.C. to see the monuments and memorials that were built in their honor. In the fourteen years since the program’s inception, 130 flight hubs have been established in 45 states. West Virginia is among those participating states; its hub is in Huntington. Honor Flight Huntington was formed in 2013, and has taken over 1,000 veterans on 11 separate flights, flying out of both the Tri-State Airport in Huntington and North Central West Virginia Airport in Bridgeport.
A flight from Huntington will be leaving this Saturday from Huntington, but a Bridgeport flight is being scheduled for Spring of 2020.
Top priority is given to America’s most senior heroes – survivors of World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars – and they are eligible whether they served stateside or overseas during these three conflicts. Applications are being taken now.
Billie Jo Claypool, originally from Clarksburg and now living in New Milton (Doddridge County), WV, got involved with Honor Flight Huntington a few years ago and has traveled on two of the trips as a veteran’s ‘guardian’ (the veteran’s companion for the day). She is currently leading fundraising efforts for the Spring flight out of Bridgeport, along with help from a group of about 60 local volunteers. She explained how crucial that fundraising is.
“Most people are probably unaware that the cost of just one Honor Flight is $85,000,” she said, “and we anticipate taking 100 veterans on that trip. Our first goal is to have $50,000 by October 31st to cover the deposit, and fortunately, we have already raised $40,000 of that. After the deposit has been covered, the remaining $35,000 will be due before our departure so fundraising endeavors could continue up until that time.”
She broke down the costs involved. $70,000 pays for the charter flight from Bridgeport to D.C.; $1,500 pays for a deluxe motorcoach for the day (this flight will require four motorcoaches); $700 pays for every veteran’s Honor Flight tee-shirt; and $30 per veteran covers their food for the day.
“Literally, anything the veterans want that day is paid for. However, the guardians and volunteers taking the trip pay their own expenses. Funding raised goes strictly for veterans’ expenses,” she clarified.
Billie Jo and her volunteers have been REALLY busy in the past several months acquiring the needed funding to make this opportunity available to veterans. They have sold wrist bands at many fairs and festivals, worked at Mountain Fest in Morgantown this summer, have set up a tag day at Price Cutter in Bridgeport, have a quilt raffle going on, worked last weekend at the Leaf Peepers Festival in Canaan Valley, and you’ll see them working this weekend at the Apple Butter Festival in Salem. They also have a Thirty-One Bag Bingo set to occur on October 13th at the Clarksburg VFW and an Off-Road Poker Run in Grafton scheduled for October 19th. The Shinnston American Legion Post 31 Riders are planning a Dice Run in the Spring as well.
They are also very thankful for the many local businesses and organizations that have supported their fundraising efforts with generous donations or by ‘adopting a veteran’.
As you can see, Billie Jo Claypool, her assistant Joyce Zirkle of Marshville, and their local volunteers are busy all the time with fundraising efforts! Why did Billie Jo get so involved? Her reason was a very personal one, she said.
“My grandfather served in the Air Force and the Honor Flight was on his ‘bucket list’. He missed the cutoff for one flight and the next one was scheduled several months away. He was in poor health and I knew he wouldn’t be able to make it, so I took him to D.C. myself and we spent two days seeing all the memorials. It meant so much to him, and I’m so glad I was able to experience it with him because he passed before the next Honor Flight came about. I’ve been involved ever since then – to help see that others have this same opportunity.”
‘Guardians’ are always needed too, she said. Many of the older veterans are somewhat immobile and can’t do all the walking that is involved, so guardians are often required to push wheelchairs and see to their needs during the trip. They also witness the veterans’ experience first-hand and hear their stories.
“Being a guardian is such an amazing experience. Some of them have never been on a plane and some have never visited the nation’s capital, so it is quite a memorable and emotional trip for them to finally see these memorials that were built in their honor. They are so grateful. There are often tears shed by us all. It is truly something to experience – not just for the veterans but for guardians as well,” she added.
Amy Johnson, Hub Director of Honor Flight Huntington, added, “Time is running out for many of these men and women. We are losing WWII veterans at a rate of 150+ per day, and the Korean and Vietnam veterans are not far behind. We want to give this opportunity to as many of them as we possibly can. Since our country felt it was important to build memorials to honor their service, we feel it is equally as important for them to visit and have this experience.”
Anyone who is interested in becoming involved with the Honor Flight program can learn more by visiting their Facebook page or their website: honorflightvolunteersclarsburgwestvirginia.org. Or you can call Billie Jo Claypool directly at 304-677-7812 or Joyce Zirkle at 304-783-5210.
All donations can be mailed to the Huntington Hub at Honor Flight Huntington, 285 Gallaher St., Huntington, WV 25705. Please mark “Bridgeport Honor Flight” in the memo.