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One More Mission
They had served in different wars, in different eras, but in the same unit. Across the span of time, these two Veterans came to meet here in the shadow of a monument raised to honor warriors of the “Greatest Generation.” And then unexpectedly, one reached out to the other with a profound gesture of gratitude.
Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Juan Garcia (pictured at far right) looked down at his uniform. He removed his treasured “T-Patch,” signifying that he had served in combat theater with the Texas Army National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division (ID) in Iraq.
“I want you to have this,” he told his fellow Veteran.
Garcia, in his late 40s, respectfully handed his patch to Robert Manning (center), 95, of the U.S. Army’s 36th ID. In WWII, the 36th faced 19 months of combat and extreme hardship. It captured more than 175,000 enemy troops, and received 15 Medals of Honor and 10 Presidential Unit Citations. It also experienced the third-highest number of casualties of any American division during the war, with 8,291 U.S. Soldiers killed or missing in action and another 19,052 wounded.
Somehow, Manning had survived. Now here he stood beside Garcia, representing many generations, in front of a great black granite and bronze monument in the nation’s capital, the National WWII Memorial, honoring fallen comrades. Together, they shared a moment of respect, humility and brotherhood that only wartime Soldiers can experience.
That tearful exchange in October of last year was witnessed by First Sergeant (Ret.) Lek Mateo (above left), another Guard Soldier who served with Garcia in the 36th in Iraq. “It was very touching, that shared bond,” Mateo says, “after all of those years.”
Garcia, representing the National Guard Bureau, met Mateo in Washington, DC, where they were both serving as “guardians,” or volunteer chaperones for the national nonprofit Honor Flight Network, which pays to fly as many Veterans as possible to their war’s memorial before they take their last breaths.
Although the memorials are the destination, both Veterans and their volunteer guardians agree that the real value of the trips comes from the camaraderie between kindred spirits. From the applause the Veterans—both young and old—generate at the airports from other passengers, to shared stories over dinner, to tears shed at the memorial, to the surprise letters of thanks from friends and family on the trip home, the experience of an Honor Flight is profound—even life-changing.
But those trips can’t be organized fast enough, because guardians across the country are fighting against time.
‘I WAS HOOKED’
Each Honor Flight can involve scores of Veterans, and the stops include the National WWII Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the U.S. Navy Memorial and Museum, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery during the two-day excursion.
The flights occur several times a year across the country, organized by 127 regional hubs across 41 states. Since its first trip in 2005, the Honor Flight Network has transported more than 125,000 Veterans to Washington at no cost to them.
That experience is nurtured by volunteers everywhere, including Mateo, Garcia and comrades from the Texas Army National Guard.
Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Kristine Shelstad, who heads the Austin chapter’s outreach volunteer team, has served as a guardian on 12 trips, helping arrange logistics. She first experienced Honor Flights when she was working in the Texas Office of the Adjutant General at the Texas Military Forces Joint Force Headquarters and became involved coordinating the event. “I met a few of the Honor Flight staff and—importantly—I met a few of the WWII Veterans,” she says. “From then on, I was hooked.”
Today, she’s on a personal mission to get every Guard member involved. Although Honor Flights include Veterans from other wars, those who fought in WWII are a special focus because of their advancing ages. With an estimated 640 WWII Veterans dying every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Honor Flight Network is aggressively trying to transport as many Veterans as possible to the memorials before they pass on.
Shelstad urges every Guard Soldier to find and sponsor a WWII Veteran in their community for an Honor Flight. The Austin hub’s latest trip took place in September, and it’s planning a special trip to the WWII memorial on Dec. 6 and 7 for Pearl Harbor survivors in Texas. (To refer or nominate a Veteran for this trip, call 888-530-8880 or email email@example.com.)
“The urgency of this issue can’t be stressed enough,” Shelstad says about WWII Vets. “Right now, those who are ages 88 to 89 are the youngest, and they may have only a few years to get this recognition. We could use help in mobilizing the Guard to help us find these guys and gals.”
Guardians with the Honor Flight Network develop relationships with their assigned Veterans at least one month before each flight. They contact their families, ensure the Veterans are physically and emotionally ready for the trip, and reassure loved ones that these heroes will be cared for on the trip. About two weeks before a flight, everyone meets so that Veterans, guardians and families can get to know one another. Medical professionals review each Veteran’s situation to ensure the team is aware of any special needs.
On the trip to DC, the bonding continues. “The flight is always a blast,” Shelstad says. “These guys and gals are excited, and we get to hear a lot of tall tales and jokes along the way. Honor Flight has convinced me that a sense of humor is essential to living a long life.”
After they arrive, Veterans and guardians have dinner and spend more time telling war stories. Guardians also stay with their Veterans in hotel rooms and assist them every step of the way. Mateo says it takes a special person to be up to the Guardian task.
“They stay up all night; you stay up all night,” he says. “I’ve had a Veteran with special needs who had a falling hazard and had to watch them.” But, he adds, serving these heroes and giving back is an honor.
And, participants say, there’s nothing like the connection that forms between Veterans of different generations on these trips. At the end of Mateo’s October 2013 Honor Flight, he asked Manning, the WWII Veteran who served in the 36th ID, what he valued most about his visit.
It was not the memorial, Manning told him. Nor was it Arlington Cemetery or the other sites. It was exchanging the T-Patch (the “T” stands for Texas)—that shared piece of cloth signifying a proud history of combat and camaraderie between two Veterans from the Lone Star State.
Shelstad says she especially treasures the conversations with female Veterans of WWII. “I tell them, ‘If you hadn’t been brave, then I wouldn’t be here today. There is a direct correlation between you and the barriers I didn’t have to break down. I enjoy my career today because of you,’ ” she says. “They hug me and say, ‘I’d do it again tomorrow.’ ”
Shelstad also keeps in touch with Veterans who have been on the trips. “They capture your heart,” she says. “You stay attached to them.”
WAVES OF GRATITUDE
Spontaneous applause, genuine smiles, heartfelt words of gratitude and even tears. WWII Veteran Joe Barger wasn’t asking for any of it, and he certainly didn’t expect it when he received an Honor Flight in the fall of last year.
When Veterans first arrive at their departure airport, they are greeted with cheers. And when they arrive at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, airline passengers often line up to greet them and show respect. Then, as their tour bus meanders through the traffic around the capital, cars honk at stoplights, and passers-by clap and wave their thanks.
Because Barger and others aren’t seeking recognition, this always takes them aback. Like many other Veterans, he says he can’t fathom the appreciation shown for his wartime service.
“I wanted to see the monument to Iwo Jima. I had been there, [so] I had been longing to see the memorial,” he says. “It was very sobering. I thought it was something to know that, after 40 years, people remembered and had respect for our activity back then.”
WWII Veteran Marvin Kanter, who took an Honor Flight from Austin to DC in October 2012, says his trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience because of the bond he felt with the other Veterans and the Soldier guardians. “If someone was to bring back a memory, the others knew what they were talking about, and the feelings were the same,” he says. “It’s absolutely outstanding.”
Fellow Texas WWII Veteran Cubby Bair, who experienced his Honor Flight earlier this year in March, says he was moved by his visit to the National WWII Memorial. “You get tears in your eyes,” he says. “I lost a lot of high school buddies. It’s something that you ought to see in your life. I will never forget that trip.”
Mateo never forgets his. He has volunteered on four Honor Flights, including the one in September. An Iraq War Veteran, Mateo joined the program after retiring from the 100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment because of the kinship he feels for his Veteran forefathers. “It reaffirms what I’ve done the last few years and why I joined the military,” he says. “These men and women are what I’ve read in the history books, what I’ve seen in movies. They are living history—living historians.”
Learning more about that lineage firsthand is priceless, he says. “You come back feeling good about yourself, your unit, your organization,” Mateo adds. “And you’d be surprised—a lot may have served in the same unit and branch of service as you did. That’s something. Every time I go on a flight, I always find a new story. [I] just sit there and listen to them.”
Another former Guard Soldier, Captain Mitch Fuller (pictured at left), spent 10 of his 17 years of service in the Texas National Guard and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 (where he received the Bronze Star). He now serves in the Individual Ready Reserve.
Fuller joined Honor Flight Austin while serving on the city council of Cedar Park, TX. He now volunteers as the assistant director of operations and logistics with Honor Flight Austin. He says his experiences with the program have given him more of an appreciation for the sacrifices troops made during WWII.
Fuller’s voice cracks on the phone as he recounts his first Honor Flight trip this past May with a Veteran named R.V. Rhoads (above left). “When I went to Iraq, I had a set of orders and knew close to the day [when] I’d come home,” he says. “I knew for a year that I had 12 months of boots on the ground. It’s an idea you can see in your mind—a light at the end of the tunnel. But in WWII, they had no idea when they’d come home. The ones who got through it were there three or four years. My Veteran was there for three.”
Fuller and Rhoads bonded so much during their trip that after they returned to Austin, they reunited to visit the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, TX. “I sent his daughter a bunch of photos that I took on the phone [that day],” he continues, “and she used them for a Father’s Day present.”
For Fuller and other guardians, trips like Honor Flights are a small gift, but a powerful one. “It is so moving. When I say it’s emotional, it’s really emotional,” Fuller says. “These Veterans are at the end of their lives and getting the last bit of recognition they so richly deserve.”
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
- Visit HonorFlight.org/apply/volunteer.cfm
- Select your state
- Select your regional hub
- Visit the hub website to download a volunteer application
For more information, or to view a list of all regional U.S. Honor Flight hubs, visit HonorFlight.org/programs/allregionalhubs.cfm