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A Heartfelt "Welcome Home"

Honor Flight: Giving Veterans the Trip of a Lifetime

Jack Slocum served as an infantryman in Okinawa in World War II, did two tours in Korea and one in Vietnam over the course of 24 years in the Army. And recently, the 96-year-old combat veteran with a Bronze Star was one of 26 vets selected for an all-expense-paid Honor Flight to Washington D.C. 

“It’s something I’ll never forget,” said Slocum, of Colorado Springs. “It was very emotional. I can’t even tell you how much I enjoyed it.”

Among the most poignant parts of the trip for him was the World War II Memorial – in particular, an area featuring 4,048 gold stars – each one representing 100 American servicemen who gave their lives in the conflict.

Slocum encourages others to apply for an Honor Flight, saying it brings veterans together, regardless of the conflict they fought in, their branch of service, rank or age.

During a three-day trip, veterans visit the WWII, Korea and Vietnam memorials, as well as service-specific and other memorials and often the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Groups sometimes visit other attractions like the Air and Space Museum and they always receive a heartfelt send-off and a warm welcome home.

Honor Flight Network

The nonprofit Honor Flight Network is made up of more than 125 hubs in 44 states, run mostly by volunteers and funded by donations. Honor Flight Network’s Lone Eagle program serves veterans who live in areas with no local hub.

The network was co-founded in 2005 by Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain and physician assistant and Jeff Miller, a small business owner and the son of a WWII veteran. The goal: To honor America’s heroes with the trip of a lifetime.

So far, more than 273,000 veterans have made the trip.

Honor Flight of Southern Colorado

Colorado is home to three of the nation’s 44 hubs. Honor Flight of Southern Colorado got its start in 2011 and so far has flown more than 300 veterans from all six services on this trip.

“In order to support the present military efforts… you have to support the past,” said Southern Colorado Board President Cindy Long.

Many Vietnam veterans, for instance, never were welcomed home when they returned from service.

“We have to welcome them home in a way that they’ve never been welcomed home,” Long said. “Leave no man behind. We’ve left behind the Vietnam veterans.”

At the moment, about 130 veterans are on the southern Colorado waiting list. They typically are chosen in the following order: World War II-era, Korean War-era, Vietnam War-era. Veterans from any era suffering from a terminal illness are moved up.

The trip costs about $1,500 per veteran and includes a pre-flight luncheon, Honor Flight clothing and mementos, transportation costs, all meals and wheelchairs and walkers, as needed.

Southern Colorado normally takes two groups per year – one in the spring and another in the fall. They have enough interest to do more; the limitation is funding. To clear the existing queue of 130 vets, the organization would need donations of about $195,000, plus funding for accompanying medical personnel and a photographer.

“The population that we serve, we’re not getting any younger,” Long said. “It’s a race against the clock.”

“Just Phenomenal”

“It was just phenomenal,” said Susan Stephens, a dental specialist with the Women’s Army Corps during the Vietnam era, who was selected by Honor Flight of Southern Colorado for a 2022 trip. “We were treated like queens and kings. … We were so honored to go as veterans.”

Stephens never made it overseas during the Vietnam era and simply put that time behind her as soon as possible.

“No one came and said ‘Thank you for your service’ when we were just getting out. … When my brother came home, no one would go to pick him up,” Stephens said, adding that her brother later committed suicide. “No one treated my brother nicely.”

The Colorado Springs woman said the Honor Flight finally provided the “welcome home” that neither she nor her brother experienced earlier in life.

Dee Dunlap was on the same Honor Flight as Stephens. The linguist was trained as an interrogator during the Vietnam era, but never got the chance to fully use her skills because she was a woman. Instead, she arrived in Vietnam with no weapons training, was handed a nurse’s uniform even though she wasn’t a nurse, and served as a translator. When she was home on leave, her cousins called her a “baby killer.” The Honor Flight allowed her to open up and talk about her experiences with other veterans.

Both Stephens and Dunlap enjoyed their trip so much, they requested to serve as “guardians” on Colorado’s first women-only Honor Flight, which took place in April. Guardians pay their own way and help the veterans with whatever they need. The women-only flight transported 25 guardians and staff supporting 30 veterans, including a 100-year-old who served in WWII.

Long said the women-only flight was organized because “their experiences are so different than the men’s. The women are overlooked a lot of times. The Vietnam-area veterans, especially. … It’s a chance to recognize them apart from the men.”

“A Heartbreaker”

Pat Hines, a Vietnam veteran who served 33 years in the Air Force, called his 2022 flight “a heartbreaker.” Asked what the most memorable part of the event was, he said simply: “Just doing it.”

His daughter, Sharon Nolan, accompanied Hines on the trip, which she called “profound” and “life-changing.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I cried on that trip,” she said. “It was a safe place for them to share their stories.”

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