“They fought together as brothers in arms. They died together and now they sleep side by side. To them we have a solemn obligation.”
— Adm. Chester A. Nimitz
Throughout history, men with a sense of obligation did great deeds for mankind. The Honor Flight Network is no exception. Today the national organization has 114 chapters and sub-organizations dedicated to taking veterans — mostly WWII and Korean War veterans — to Washington, D.C., to honor their service. When it started in Ohio in May 2005, a few volunteer pilots flew 12 World WWII veterans to Washington in six small private planes.
Locally, Gary Swanson — a retired IBM employee who received recognition for interviewing more than 1,000 WWII veterans and recording their battle experiences for the Library of Congress — helped launch the first local honor flight in Overland Park as “Kansas City Metro Honor Flight” in 2008 and served three years as the president. His successor, Lee’s Summit resident Jerry Ameling, changed the name to “Heartland,” and took it to another level by involving more volunteers and with vigorous fundraising efforts.
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“Our first flight in May 2008 was possible because of a well-respected local community leader named Norman Polsky who donated $20,000 to cover the cost,” Swanson said. “He died in 2011, but his family still donates for the cause that Polsky and his wife, Elaine, strongly believed.” Others also have been giving money or other gifts to make the honor flight possible for the past six years, including John Doole, an entrepreneur who with his wife owns a company that makes uniforms for various national sport events around the country.
Swanson fondly remembered the day he met John Doole in early 2008. It was some time before the first honor flight took off to Washington with 44 veterans and 12 guardians. Swanson reached out to him because he wanted the veterans to have travel uniforms with the honor flight logo so they could be recognized.
“I was a bit surprised that John Doole was a young man, about 40 years old. But I told him anyway — what we needed and when and asked him to give me an estimate. John smiled and said he’ll make them for free! I said, ‘John, we have money. Don’t feel that you have to donate them to us.’
“John was dead serious! He said that he’ll be happy to provide the travel outfits for those who fought for our country! I was speechless. Then I knew I was meeting our future president! Last year we elected him as our third president.”
Swanson introduced me to Doole a few days ago at a coffee shop. Doole’s sense of obligation toward those who served in the U.S. armed forces in their youth was obvious as he talked.
“What we do is all about showing our gratitude to those who fought for our freedom,” Doole began with a certain pride. “Most of the veterans never heard anyone thanking them for their sacrifices after the first welcome home ceremony, even those who returned with injuries or severe post trauma syndrome from their battle experiences.”
As a Korean-American who witnessed American troop’s sacrifices in our country six decades ago and learned what freedom means to people at a young age, I saw a chance to put in a few words here, so I told him that the Korean War veterans had even more difficult time than WWII veterans, because the war ended without a peace treaty, and two Koreas were still worst enemies when they returned.
That’s why, Doole said, the honor flight is all the more important to the veterans, because “the trip to Washington D.C. gives them a sense of closure to their troubling memories.”
He proudly said that Heartland Honor Flight will make its 12th trip to the capital on Oct. 7 with about 90 veterans — 50 from WWII and 40 from the Korean War. They will have everything they need: wheelchairs and wheelchair-lifters, a medical team with a physician, nurses and emergency technicians and guardians who do everything to make them comfortable during the flight as well as the ground tour in the capital.
I recalled listening to a Korean War veteran, Dale Kuhn, at the Matt Ross Community Center in Overland Park last May when he shared his honor flight experience with about 100 veterans, both World War II and Korean War. The program was presented by Gary Swanson.
“I cried so much,” Kuhn said.
“It was the most memorable trip I’ve made. … The men who I traveled with could have been my combat buddies during my 11 months and 29 days in Korea, including the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in the freezing weather. By the way, I lost two toes to frostbite, among other things. . … (During the trip) we veterans shared what we went through, both in Korea and after we returned. … I must tell you, every non-veteran on the trip with us were superb. They were truly dedicated to making the trip safe and memorable for us.”
Who said a nation’s conscience can be measured by the way its people treat their old soldiers?
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea's modern history.