Final numbers are still being tallied from Honor Flight Network’s 2012 flying season, which ended in November, but it’s possible the Springfield-based nonprofit flew its 100,000th veteran to the nation’s capital this year to visit the war memorials they never thought they’d see.
If correct, the milestone would perfectly cap a banner year for the organization founded locally in 2005 to fly veterans physically or financially incapable of getting to Washington, D.C., on their own.
Not only is the Honor Flight Network the subject of a new documentary, but this month the group also received the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s 2012 Milton Caniff Spirit of Flight Award.
The prestigious award honors significant contributions to aviation by a group or organization, and Honor Flight now ranks alongside such past recipients as the Doolittle Raiders, the Tuskegee Airmen and the Apollo crew.
But, for Honor Flight, these are small victories in a larger war.
More than 20,000 veterans are on Honor Flight’s waiting list, Executive Director Diane Gresse said, and flights are taken only when enough private donations are received.
“We’re at the leisure of the donor,” she said.
Time is particularly of the essence for the nation’s 1.8 million remaining World War II veterans — it’s estimated that 900 of them die every day.
“Unfortunately,” Gresse said, “some of those on the waiting list won’t make it. That’s the most heartbreaking phone call you can make, to call them and tell them they’ve been accepted for the next flight, but they just passed away last week.”
Still, the fact that Honor Flight has flown 100,000 veterans — or very close to it — is nothing short of impressive for an outfit that now occupies three rooms in Springfield’s Small Business Development Center on East Auburn Avenue. One room is dedicated just to Honor Flight merchandise.
“It’s one of the best nonprofit organizations that people have never heard of,” quipped Earl Morse, the Enon resident and private pilot who created Honor Flight not long after the 2004 dedication of a national monument honoring the 16 million men and women who fought in World War II and the 405,399 who died.
The organization’s success — Honor Flight now comprises a network of 119 hubs in 40 states — is entirely due to word of mouth.
“We don’t advertise,” Morse said. “We’re too busy spending our money racing the clock.”
About 50 percent of the veterans transported to the National Mall by Honor Flight the past several years have been in wheelchairs. Many are on oxygen.
Preference still is given to veterans of World War II, although some hubs have started flying Korean War veterans as well. However, a veteran of any war with a terminal illness is a top priority.
Inevitably, though, all of Honor Flight — each hub has its own board and raises its own money — will soon have to transition to the nation’s 2.4 million Korean veterans and then the 7.5 million Vietnam veterans.
But, for an organization built completely on word of mouth, Honor Flight is a success story.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, a disabled veteran of World War II, is on board as an honorary adviser.
Southwest Airlines approached Honor Flight Network and signed on in 2008 as the official commercial carrier, donating close to $3 million in free airline tickets to veterans making the pilgrimage to Washington.
“This generation of veterans has done so much for our country, and we’re honored to help them achieve this dream of theirs,” said Marilee McInnis, a spokeswoman for Southwest. “We know that time may be short for many of them, so we want to help however we can.”
Honor Flight has used commercial and charter aircraft exclusively since 2006, in order to navigate weather conditions more safely and to better accommodate veterans in wheelchairs. Before, private pilots volunteered their aircraft.
The group’s first flight, in May 2005, consisted of six small planes flying out of the Springfield airport carrying 12 World War II veterans.
“It’s not as romantic as what it was,” Morse said. But, he added, “It’s not about us. It’s all about them.”
Using commercial aircraft, Honor Flight was able to transport 18,055 veterans to Washington in 2011 alone.
Morse, who relinquished his day-to-day Honor Flight duties last year in order to return to work as a physician assistant for the Department of Veterans Affairs, looks back at Honor Flight’s roots with immense pride.
“It is the most noble, the most honorable, thing I’ve ever done with my life,” he explained. “I met a guy who donated a kidney to a complete stranger. That’s the only thing that could possibly be more noble and more honorable.”
Morse also looks back and laughs.
“We had an incredible uphill battle getting started,” he said.
It seemed this idea of flying veterans to Washington, D.C., at absolutely no cost to them seemed too good to be true for many.
In fact, one veteran called Middletown police, Morse said, to report the scheme. An officer advised the caller to steer clear.
“He said, ‘That sounds like a scam,’” Morse recalled.
Another man demanded to know how much it would cost to get his father back home after Morse flew him for “free” to Washington.
“Man, it was a struggle,” Morse said. “Even the World War II veterans would ask, ‘So, this isn’t going to cost me anything?’”
“There was no program in the nation doing anything like this,” he added. “It’s funny to look back at it, but it was no walk in the park.”
If anything, the Honor Flight story seemed too good not to make a documentary about, and the aptly titled “Honor Flight” was released earlier this month. The film chronicles a Wisconsin chapter of Honor Flight as it transports veterans to Washington.
“It’s pretty much indicative of all our hubs,” said Gresse, a 40-year-old South Vienna native who joined Honor Flight in 2009 as office manager of the Springfield headquarters. “There’s not a dry eye when you’re watching the movie.”
Despite her administrative workload, Gresse still makes time to accompany a few trips each year.
“Taking these veterans, it’s like taking Abraham Lincoln to see his memorial,” she said.
She described a trip as “life changing.”
“When we say we’ve flown close to 100,000 veterans,” Gresse said, “the lives that it’s touched are innumerable.”
After decades of keeping to themselves, a trip to the memorial gets men to finally open up to family, friends and neighbors.
She described one woman, who, accompanying her elderly father on an Honor Flight trip, never knew he had a Purple Heart and two bronze stars until that weekend.
Dave Bauer, a Clark County Vietnam veteran who was wounded in 1969, has been involved with Honor Flight since the beginning.
As commander of the Clark County Military Order of the Purple Heart, Bauer has made more trips to the memorial than he can remember. He conceived an initiative called Flags of Our Heroes to honor veterans who died before making an Honor Flight trip, in which he escorts a flag and a photo of the deceased to the memorial.
Visiting the memorial with other veterans never loses its meaning, he said.
“They’re just so overwhelmed,” Bauer said. “When they break down and cry, we break down and cry.”