Having written about Honor Flight several times didn't prepare a local writer from experiencing it firsthand with her veteran father
Until last fall, I thought Honor Flight was “for other people.” I thought it was for veterans who had seen combat on foreign soil, who’d lost comrades in battle or who were highly decorated.
I’d heard over and over from area veterans how impactful it was to visit Washington’s impressive war memorials, to be with others who had common history and shared experiences. And I’d heard how relationships were deepened or rekindled and how memories were brought back to life.
But I wasn’t prepared to experience all of that side by side with my 87-year-old dad, both wearing “Honor Flight orange” shirts and lanyards, both with eyes wide open and jaws dropping at the majesty of the monuments and camaraderie of others who had served.
When we traveled to D.C. last Sept. 30, I wasn’t prepared for the bands playing, the firetruck water displays, the Patriot Guard motorcycle escorts or the crisp salutes of active duty servicemen and women in dress uniforms, shined shoes and white gloves.
I wasn’t prepared for the top-notch planes and tour bus, the welcoming VIP treatment by TSAs, the ever-ready fleet of 50 wheelchairs or the attentive medical professionals on standby.
I wasn’t prepared for the endless supply of water bottles “to stay hydrated” and for the limitless food — for main meals, for snacks, for in-between snacks and to hold you over until the next snack.
I wasn’t expecting to see an organization completely powered by volunteers and generosity that operates so efficiently, smartly and smoothly. Every eventuality has two contingency plans. Every nickel is leveraged to get twice the return. And every volunteer — to a person — has stepped up because they love veterans.
I wasn’t prepared for the barely audible sound of scraping heels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, nor for the eerie silence of the Korean Memorial, nor for the overwhelming magnitude of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
I wasn’t prepared for the endless gestures of gratitude, honor and respect.
“Thank you for your service.”
Those words were spoken sincerely, with feeling and meaningful eye contact, to each veteran at every turn by strangers, tourists, workers, children, servicewomen and men, location volunteers, government officials and TV personalities.
I wasn’t prepared to see Dad smile so often, surprised by so many things, honored in so many ways and so deeply humbled and moved.
I wasn’t prepared to see him immediately recognize and connect with a boyhood friend from North Chili, who happened to be on the same Honor Flight mission. What a serendipitous and rich reunion that was!
And, most definitely, neither of us were prepared for the welcome home we received at Greater Rochester International Airport when we returned. The applause, the cheers, the personal greetings from literally thousands overwhelmed us both as we made our way through the terminal. Bands were playing, flags were waving, dignitaries were shaking hands and offering gratitude for service, children and previous Honor Flight veterans were saluting and handing out small flags and memorabilia.
I remember my dad was in his assigned wheelchair — as were so many of his fellow veterans — but on the last leg of the welcome-home gauntlet he struggled to his feet to walk and receive his much-deserved welcome home with honor and dignity.
It was a trip he never forgot or stopped reminiscing about until he passed away suddenly on June 10 after a very short illness.
It was a trip he never thought he deserved, because he’d never seen combat duty. A percussionist in the 89th Army Band during the Korean War, Dad had only played for others as they headed out to serve.
But as we both learned many times over on our Honor Flight Rochester mission last fall, he most certainly did, as does every honorably discharged veteran.
I can still hear Honor Flight mission leaders driving the point home.
“Did you sign your name? Did you go where they told you to go? Did you do what they told you to do?
Then you’re a hero and you deserve an Honor Flight experience and an Honor Flight welcome home.”
Find out more about how you can create memories like this with your beloved veteran at honorflightrochester.org.
Note: Melody Burri is formerly a staff writer and currently a freelance writer for Messenger Post Media who has written about Honor Flight Rochester multiple times over the last eight years. In late 2017 she finally experienced a mission firsthand with her father, Charles Morey, a percussionist in the 89th Army Band during the Korean War.