Day of Honor brings veterans out of shadows, into community

  • Published
  • By Capt. Rachel Ingram
  • 445th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

From 45 states across the country, privately chartered commercial jets full of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans arrive in Washington.

It’s all part of the Honor Flight Network, an organization on a mission to celebrate America’s veterans by inviting them to share in a Day of Honor at national memorials in the National Capitol Region.

So far, 300,000 Veterans have been aboard an Honor Flight, and that number grows every month.

One recent Honor Flight departed from Lexington, Kentucky, May 19, and a 445th Airlift Wing Airman was aboard that plane.

Chief Master Sgt. Robert Rowe, 87th Aerial Port Squadron operations superintendent, accompanied his father, Larry Rowe, who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and achieved the rank of sergeant.

Three charter buses of veterans paired with volunteers, known as guardians, were on the May 19 Day of Honor organized by Honor Flight Kentucky. As is standard procedure for Honor Flights, they visited the Korean War Veterans, Vietnam Veterans, World War II and Lincoln Memorials, and the Washington Monument in one day, also witnessing the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

For many portions of the trip, Honor Flights are given police escort, and local fire departments often spray water on the wings of the plane as it taxies by. There is never any charge for a veteran to participate in an Honor Flight, and all meals and expenses are covered by the organization. Rowe noted that four other Honor Flights, from other parts of the nation, were also in Washington the same day.

The first Honor Flights occurred in 2005 and 2006, departing from Springfield, Ohio, and Asheville, North Carolina, respectively. Retired Air Force Capt. Earl Morse, a Veterans Affairs medical center physician assistant, and Jeff Miller, a business owner and the son and nephew of WWII veterans, both set out to create an avenue for WWII veterans to see their newly constructed memorial.

Morse’s method consisted of piloting small aircraft with his private pilot’s license to personally transport veterans to Washington. Miller, on the other hand, wasn’t a pilot, nor was there any direct flights from Asheville Regional Airport to any of the airports near Washington. But he was determined to help every WWII veteran in his community go see their memorial.

“I knew I had to charter a plane,” Miller recalled. “I wanted to fill that thing up with veterans.”

A businessman by trade, lining up the resources to charter a commercial aircraft was a new challenge for Miller.

He remembered the skepticism he faced in one of the initial calls he made to a representative of a major airline.

“I pitched the idea, and he said, ‘Are you a travel agent? A broker?’ I told him, ‘Well, I’m a dry cleaner,’” Miller said. “The line went dead silent. But I had the sense that this guy was about the same age as me, so I asked him if one, or both, of his parents had served in WWII. He said, ‘Yes,’ and I asked him, ‘Well don’t they deserve to go see it?’ Dead silence again. Then he said, ‘I’ll call you back.’” 

After months of coordination, Miller secured a Boeing 737, and the first Blue Ridge Honor air flight departed in September 2006. In less than six months, Miller organized a total of three round trips from Western North Carolina to Washington for more than 300 veterans.

Miller and Morse formed Honor Flight Network in February 2007, and there are now 129 Honor Flight hubs.

In addition to one guardian for each veteran, each Honor Flight includes a full team of support staff, including paramedics, doctors, mental health counselors and administrators.

While the original focus was to transport WWII Veterans to their brand-new memorial, organizers noticed many of the guardians accompanying the veterans were veterans themselves – of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. As a result, they expanded the trip itinerary to include visits to other memorials in the NCR.

“On one of those first flights, we had a guardian with us who was paired with, at the time, two WWII veterans,” Miller recalled. “When we visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that guardian had his hand up against a name on the wall, and he was just sobbing. The two WWII vets were holding him up. I just knew, there is no way we can stop before we get the Vietnam guys. And here we are, 19 years later.”

The Korean War is often called the forgotten war, Miller pointed out, “and Vietnam vets have been living in the shadow for 50 years.”

To Miller, one of the big distinctions that separates Korean and Vietnam veterans from WWII veterans is the cultural response each group received, both during and after their tour of duty. WWII veterans, for example, often participate in reunions, and they received an entirely different welcome home from war than Korean and Vietnam veterans did, he asserted.

He said the impact of those disparities is clearly evident in the level of emotional release that commonly occurs at the respective memorial, like what he observed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the early days.

“I wouldn’t dare say it’s closure,” he said. “But it’s a big step forward. More than anything, we give them other Vets to talk to, and time together.”

To that end, Honor Flight Network itineraries include pre-departure social events in the weeks and months leading up to a trip and built-in opportunities for meaningful interaction between participants during the day of honor.

“The goal was never to just go to monuments,” Miller said, explaining that the organization’s vision is a nation where all of America’s veterans experience the honor, gratitude and community of support they deserve.

Larry Rowe, who now lives in Shelbyville, Kentucky, enlisted in the Air Force in the 60s. Two days later, he received a draft notice in the mail. Because his Army ship date was sooner than his Air Force date, he ended up being drafted into the Army, his son explained.

His duty stations included Colorado, Kansas and Vietnam. As a forward observer on a tank, “basically he would call in artillery strikes, so he was up close and personal with the bad guys.”

Rowe said that after his dad returned home from Vietnam he didn’t sleep in a bed for about three months.

 “He was pretty rattled when he came home before,” Rowe said. “He was a combat veteran and came home with PTSD.”

While in the airport before their Honor Flight departure, Larry met another veteran who was in Vietnam the year after he was. The two hit it off, the Chief said. “It was therapeutic for both of them.”

For Vietnam veterans particularly, Honor Flights give them the homecoming they deserved, some 50 years overdue. Two key components of each Honor Flight are mail call during the flight home and the welcome home party at the end of the day, with some welcome home parties boasting several thousand people, Miller said.

Community members submit letters of thanks and encouragement which are handed out during the return flight. Every veteran receives a large parcel of personalized letters from friends, family and strangers alike. Once the plane lands, cheering crowds line the walkway with banners, flags and flowers.

“That was the part that got me teared up,” Rowe said. “It was really powerful. There were Cub Scouts; big, burly bikers; just thousands of people shaking his hand and giving them little gifts. He never had that before.”

Rowe recognized his military service has garnered a vastly different reception from the community than his father’s tour of duty.

“I go into a grocery store wearing a uniform and people thank me for my service,” the superintendent said. “There’s always going to be someone trying to buy me lunch. Even just people who show interest in service members and what we do in our careers … That didn’t exist in the 60s and 70s.

“For him to have an entire day that was just about him, and his service, and what he did, and then to cap that off with a gauntlet of people welcoming him home and thanking him, that was so special to witness, and something I think will always stay with him, and with me,” Rowe continued.

The Honor Flight Kentucky group returned to Lexington around 9 p.m. May 19. Despite the nearly 18-hour day, Rowe said his dad stayed up until 2 a.m. that night telling his wife all about everything that happened.

“For him to be able to experience that, and to be treated that way, it was so worth it,” Rowe said. “I would have done it a million times; I would have paid quadruple that; I would have taken days and days off work, just to give him that experience.”

Author’s Note: Honor Flight hubs are always in need of volunteers. Guardians who fly to Washington for a Day of Honor pay a modest fee to ensure the ongoing operations of the nonprofit organization. Individuals of all ages and abilities are also welcome to submit letters for mail call or attend welcome home parties at a nearby airport. For more information about these opportunities, and to find your closest Honor Flight hub, please visit