A few weeks ago, I found myself at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC early on a Saturday morning. The terminal tends to be quiet at that time of week, so I was a bit surprised to see more people than I expected waiting in the security line. As I looked closer, I noticed that many folks did not seem to be toting any luggage – a bit of an oddity in these days of checked baggage charges.
As I advanced toward the metal detector, it occurred to me that many people in line were wearing similar t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Honor Flight.” The phrase is generic enough that it does not immediately give away its purpose, so my mind cycled through various options. Could it be soldiers returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan? Possibly. Or perhaps it was to welcome a flight bringing home an American man or woman killed or wounded in combat.
It turns out my guesses were incorrect. As I made my way to my gate, I heard an announcement over the public address system. A US Airways gate agent was announcing the imminent arrival of an “Honor Flight” carrying World War II veterans on a visit to the nation’s capital to see the memorial to their service. We were told that many of these elderly individuals had never even visited Washington, let alone the World War II Memorial on the Mall.
The Honor Flight volunteers I had seen at security were there to serve as a welcoming party – in part to greet these American heroes, but also to help meet their needs as they arrived. Soon enough the jet dedicated to bringing in these veterans and their traveling party came into sight on the tarmac. It was then that I realized there were a couple of fire trucks positioned at the entrance to the “alley” approaching the arrival gate. As the 737 taxied between those trucks, they fired plumes of water to create an arc of honor. This represents a rare tribute, often reserved for retiring pilots and other significant milestones.
With the jetway in place, the veterans of the battles in the Atlantic and Pacific slowly made their way into the terminal. The Honor Flight volunteers were joined by passengers like me waiting for our flights in providing a standing ovation to these former soldiers. As armed forces music played in the background, these elderly individuals were clearly moved by the experience. Some bystanders leaned in to offer personal words of thanks, while others explained to their children why the event was so important.
The Honor Flight ceremony was all the more significant to me as someone who has a particular interest in World War II history. It also happens that the memorial to that war is my favorite monument in Washington, DC – it’s a place that I like to visit in the early morning hours when it is largely empty and the fountains provide a great audio backdrop to the tremendous view of the Lincoln Memorial it provides.
On this Memorial Day weekend when we Americans traditionally honor the fallen heroes of past conflicts, we now do well to recognize the service of those who survived as well. Efforts like Honor Flight remind us that our society also has many heroes who may not wear a military uniform but nonetheless contribute to the effort of our nation to preserve our freedoms.