WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — Veterans from across the country are traveling to the nation’s capital once again after the COVID pandemic grounded Honor Flights for more than a year. The nonprofit gives all-expenses-paid trips to those who served during the World War II, Korea, and Vietnam eras so they can visit the memorials honoring their service and sacrifice.
“It’s a real joy to be out here today,” said Bill Lawson, one of 122 veterans to travel with an Honor Flight from Columbus, Ohio. Strangers at the National Mall asked for photos with them and shook their hands. Lawson, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, said many returned home then to a much different reception. “Being cursed and spat on,” he said. “This is just a wonderful way to show them that we appreciate every military person.”
The pandemic grounded all Honor Flights for 18 months, precious time for some veterans who were hoping to take the trip but passed away before they could. The Honor Flight Network started in 2005 with a mission of honoring World War II veterans in the nation’s capital. It has since expanded to those who served in Korea, Vietnam, and intermediary operations.
The nonprofit also makes exceptions for more recent service eras in special cases like terminal illnesses. About 250,000 veterans have been able to make the two-day trip to Washington for free. It often begins with a celebratory send-off at their local airport, including a presentation of the colors and volunteers cheering and waving flags.
While in DC, veterans visit the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam memorials, along with other stops on the National Mall. They also travel to Arlington National Cemetery, where they get to witness the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and participate in a wreath-laying ceremony.
Bill Jackson, another veteran on the Columbus Honor Flight, was the only WWII veteran on this Honor Flight. One of the few remaining WWII veterans still alive today, he served in the Navy, where he manned a gun turret. “Kamikazes hit us in the Philippines,” he remembers. “Put 22 holes in our ship.”
At 96 years old, Jackson still has vivid memories of the war, but was at first reluctant to make the trip back to the memorial that honors it. On Thursday, he said he was glad he made the trip. “They’ve been so nice to me,” Jackson said. “I can’t believe it.”
Though he received a hero’s welcome, Jackson said he does not feel like one. “I wasn’t a hero,” he said. “A hero is someone else who does something great.”
Even so, many would call Jackson a hero as part of the Greatest Generation. “I got to serve,” he said. “I felt like it was my duty, just like everyone did then.”
Jackson considers the younger generations choosing to serve to be the nation’s heroes. “I say, ‘Congratulations!’” he said. “They’re doing a good service.”