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Honor Flights group pays tribute to ailing veterans at center

Until August, hundreds of ailing veterans in Oklahoma were sidelined from participating in Oklahoma Honor Flights' trips to visit the nation's war memorials in Washington, D.C.

The group has flown 1,433 veterans on 15 expenses-paid trips to see the monuments since 2009. Each veteran is assigned an escort for assistance, but many are still unable to participate or travel by airplane for medical reasons, said Linda Banz, secretary of the group's board of directors.

Banz's husband, state Rep. Gary Banz, modeled Oklahoma Honor Flights' newest endeavor, Operation 4G, after similar programs in other states.

"He came up with (Operation 4G) so that we could take part of the ceremony and honor them, those who definitely cannot go on a plane," Linda Banz said.

The name stands for "Giving to the Grounded Greatest Generation."

The first two 4G events were held at veterans centers in Lawton and Norman late last year. The Claremore Veterans Center hosted the third, recognizing 124 veteran residents, on Friday.

"Makes a grown man cry," said an emotional Claude Parish of Bristow.

Parish was stationed in the Philippines while serving in the Army during World War II.

His escort on Friday, Mattie Lemmons, a junior at Claremore High School, described the event as "a very humbling experience."

"To think we're sitting next to the people in it (World War II) is something else," she said. "I'm extremely grateful I got to do this."

Lemmons is a member of the school's Future Farmers of America organization, which -- along with Claremore High School's Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and Tulsa's Will Rogers High School Army JROTC -- provided the student escorts.

Like traditional Honor Flights send-off events, the Patriot Guard Riders greeted the guests of honor, flags in hand.

Exuberant marches paid homage to each military branch as the student escorts waived miniature flags to signify their veterans' service. Each veteran's name was then read aloud.

Linda Banz reminded the crowd that they were surrounded by "living history books" who represent "a chapter that makes all the subsequent chapters possible."

The students then placed commemorative Oklahoma Honor Flight coins on lanyards around the veterans' necks.

Linda Banz and the other speakers, Rep. Banz and state Rep. Eric Proctor, referenced a favorite quote of the Oklahoma Honor Flights group by Will Rogers: "We can't all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by."

We've "gathered to collectively stand on the curb and clap," Proctor said.

Four veterans centers remain on Oklahoma Honor Flights' list as prospective sites for coming Operation 4G ceremonies. Linda Banz said the group hopes to schedule those within six months.

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