A flight of a lifetime
Imagine if you knew you received an award recognizing and thanking you for your hard work, dedication, bravery, and selflessness, but you never had the chance to see it.
That’s what it’s like for thousands of U.S. military veterans who have never had the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C., and the many memorials and other locations there that honor their military service.
However, since 2005, the Honor Flight Network has been working hard to bridge the gap between veterans and their chance at receiving an in-person “thank-you” from their country. In the spring of 2022, Great Lakes Energy’s People Fund awarded $2,500 in grants to the Mid-Michigan Honor Flight—one of three Michigan-based hubs affiliated with the Honor Flight Network. The People Fund grants helped pay for two flights in 2022.
Two Ohio men formed the Honor Flight Network about a year after the World War II memorial was dedicated when they realized many still-living veterans of that war would never be able to visit the memorial because of age, physical limitations, travel distance, and limited financial means. The men rented small planes to fly local World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., for a day. Since then, the national organization has grown to 124 hubs that have transported more than 260,000 veterans from 44 states on Honor Flights to Washington, D.C.
Jim Swoboda, who has volunteered on 40 Honor Flights since 2014, said for many of the participating veterans — and in some cases, their family members—the visit is nothing short of life-changing.
A day of honor
Jim said an Honor Flight usually includes about 85–90 veterans aboard a commercial airliner. Each veteran is assigned a guardian who assists the veteran throughout the trip. Jim said guardians are often family members or close friends, but the organization also has a list of volunteer community guardians.
In most years, Mid-Michigan Honor Flight offers two flights per year—one out of Grand Rapids and the other out of Traverse City. In 2023, a third flight will be added, departing from Flint. While in Washington, D.C., veterans typically make about seven to eight stops, which usually include the war memorials for the veterans on the flight, the military branch memorials, and Arlington National Cemetery, among others.
A race against time
Jim said the Honor Flight Network’s first priority is to provide trips for as many surviving World War II veterans as possible. Following them on the priority list are Korean War veterans and then Vietnam War veterans. Terminally ill veterans also get top priority.
Jim said while the trips are meaningful to all veterans, he said some of the most moving moments he’s witnessed have involved Vietnam War veterans, many of whom weren’t treated well when they returned home.
“It’s absolutely a day of healing for them,” Jim said. “We’ve had many of them tell us that years and years of anger just melted away.”
He shared another story about three 100-year-old veterans on a flight in 2022. Two of them were D-Day survivors, and one of the men wanted to go to the Eisenhower memorial, saying, “I need to salute my general.”
Lower costs mean more flights
Jim said in recent years, each flight has cost about $150,000, paid for through various fundraising efforts and grants. About 40% of that cost is paid for through the $500 each guardian pays toward their flights. Veterans pay nothing. However, Jim said some recent cost-saving measures will not only allow for three to four flights per year in the future, but also will allow veterans to fly to the D.C. area the day before their visit to the memorials, further streamlining the trips.
Much more information, including how to donate, volunteer, nominate a veteran for an Honor Flight, or become an Honor Flight guardian, is available online at midmichiganhonorflight.org. To learn more about the national organization, visit honorflight.org. Click here to learn more about the People Fund.