December 2010

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Honor Flight: Repaying America's Debt to the
Greatest Generation

When Dave Reinheimer, a retired member of St. Louis Local 1, heard that a program had been launched to provide aging military veterans the opportunity to visit the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., he wanted to be involved. Reinheimer's father and uncle were veterans of World War II and he had served in Vietnam in the Army's 101st Airborne Division and is the current president of his unit's veterans group.

"We're losing the Greatest Generation," says Reinheimer, noting that 1,000 veterans of the war die every day. Reinheimer contacted the editor of the St. Louis Labor Tribune to publicize the Honor Flight program, which has—since 2005—covered transportation expenses for 55,000 veterans to visit Washington. "The editor showed immediate interest since her father, a WWII veteran, had recently died," says Reinheimer.

The Honor Flight Network program was developed by Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain. After his 1998 retirement from a 21-year Air Force career, Morse went to work as a physician assistant for the Department of Veterans Affairs in a small clinic in Springfield, Ohio. Taking care of World War II veterans, Morse witnessed their pride after the completion of the memorial in Washington in 2004. He asked his patients if they intended to visit the memorial and many expressed interest.

But as the veterans came for follow-up visits, it became clear that health concerns or financial hardship prevented many of them from making the trip to the nation's capital.

Morse, a private pilot and member of one of the nation's largest aero clubs, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, decided to put his hobby to work to fulfill the dreams of veterans to visit their monument. Morse asked members of his club to join him in flying WWII veterans to Washington, D.C. Eleven pilots offered to accompany him. The Honor Flight Network has grown to 97 hubs in 37 states from Florida to Oregon. The St. Louis hub of the Honor Flight Network, one of five in the state, has a waiting list of 500 veterans for future flights. Veterans with terminal illnesses are moved to the top of the waiting list.

In September, Reinheimer accompanied two 88- year-old veterans to Washington as guardian on an Honor Flight. "They were overwhelmed," says Reinheimer. One veteran had served in the Army Air Corps and showed Reinheimer medals and pictures that had been stored away for years. The other was in the Army's 23rd Infantry Division and had been held as a prisoner of war by German soldiers for two days before he "did what he had to do" to get away, says Reinheimer. "He shared experiences with me that he probably had not discussed with members of his own family," says Reinheimer. As their return flight landed in St. Louis, the Honor Flight participants were greeted with a water cannon salute.

In October 2009, Local 1 Financial Secretary Dennis Murphy accompanied his 89-year-old father (U.S. Army veteran) and 86-year-old father-in-law (U.S. Marine veteran), on an Honor Flight. "It was an unbelievable experience," says Murphy.

Airport passengers in St. Louis and Washington, says Murphy, applauded the Honor Flight members as they passed through the concourses. Once in D.C., the veterans toured the memorial and posed in front of the names of the battles in which they fought. But perhaps the most memorable part of the trip was when veterans received a "mail call" on the return trip home. Friends and relatives filled mailbags with letters thanking them for their service to their country. Each of the elder Murphy's six children and 15 grandchildren wrote a note.

"We found out more things about my dad after the Honor Flight than we ever knew," said Murphy.

Murphy included a flier in the next meeting notice for Local 1 retirees informing them about the Honor Flight program.

Says Reinheimer, "If America thought it was important to build a memorial to their service and sacrifice, the Honor Flight Network believes it is important for WWII veterans to visit their memorial before it is too late."

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Two 88-year-old veterans were accompanied by retired Local 1 journeyman wireman Dave Reinheimer on an Honor Flight to visit the WWII Memorial in Washington.