Honor Flight was priceless for veterans

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Getting the inaugural Greater Peoria Honor Flight off the ground on Tuesday took a whole lot of dollars and dimes, its chief organizer said.

But to the 81 veterans who made the trip, it was priceless.

That was evident first by the looks on their faces as the walked into the Peoria International Airport late Tuesday and saw the more than a thousand people there cheering them, the bagpipers leading the way, and the myriad of balloons and flags and signs welcoming home the heroes of World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf Wars.

There were huge smiles, some tears and just looks of awe by the welcome they got. Said one Vietnam veteran there to greet his friends, "It's about time for a lot of these guys. We didn't get ticker-tape parades when we came home."

Words like "overwhelming," "unbelievable," "magnificent," "incredible" and "awesome" were common from the veterans and those who accompanied them on the flight as their guardians.

"It was just spectacular, much more than I expected," said World War II veteran Lyle Sparks, 91, smiling broadly as his guardian for the day, his son Dick Sparks, pushed his wheelchair.

Dick Sparks said, "It was so great for my Dad to be able to see the monument and then to have this greeting... he is overwhelmed. So am I."

Sparks and others also talked about the reception they received when they arrived at the World War II Monument in Washington, including a children's choir and dignitaries. There to welcome the Peoria group were U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, a native Peorian and former 17th District Congressman, his congressional predecessor Robert Michel, current 17th District Congressman Aaron Schock, R-Peoria, and current 18th District Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, D-Moline.

Other monuments were visited, as well, including the Vietnam Wall, the Lincoln Monument and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The Honor Flight was the first since Peoria was named a hub by the Honor Flight Network on March 15. The Honor Flights were established in 2004 as a way to get veterans who otherwise may never be able to get to Washington D.C. an opportunity to see the war monuments there. The World War II Monument was completed in 2004.

While initially geared for World War II veterans because their numbers are quickly shrinking, as are their opportunities, the flights are open to veterans of other wars, as well. Veterans fly free; guardians pay $500 for the charter flight, which includes meals.

That enough money was raised in such a short time and with relatively little corporate sponsorship was a testament to the interest of many individuals who believed it important that Peoria veterans get the chance, said chief organizer Margaret Hanley. She said the group was not allowed to officially start raising money until it was named a hub in March.

Hanley, who wept when she saw the large turnout at the airport, said later that her resolve and that of her siblings and other organizers became that much stronger to continue the flights and to continue to raise money for future flights. A flight is scheduled for September and is already sold out, she added, except for finding enough guardians.

"We'd like to do three or four flights each year. We need a lot more sponsors and a lot more volunteers. It took a lot of dollars and dimes to get the plane in the air and we need more," she said.

Hanley said she and her siblings are doing the work necessary as a tribute to their mother, who died four years ago. "She was the most patriotic person I knew so we want to do this not only for our veterans, but in her memory," she said.

She was quick to credit others who helped, including Lesley Matuszak, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Peoria. "I gave a speech at Toastmasters about Honor Flight and said it was too bad we didn't have a hub here in Peoria. Lesley came up to me afterward and said, 'let's do this.' We started talking to others and it went from there," she said.

There is now a core group of about 20 people, some of whom were on the first flight and others who stayed behind in Peoria to organize the welcome home reception at the airport.

Hanley, who was a guardian on two Honor Flights out of Springfield before forming the Peoria hub, said it is the best experience she's ever had, helping the veterans see the monument that was built in their honor.

Tuesday's reception, Hanley said, was far bigger and more overwhelming than she expected. "I knew there was a lot of people, but I never could have expected we'd get that many people and that kind of reception. It was amazing," she said.

The airport parking was filled and arrangements had been made to run a shuttle bus back and forth from the nearby CEFCU office. It's lot was filled with cars more than an hour before the flight landed.

The area around the ticket counters was filled with people holding balloons, flags and signs. The Elite Drum Corps played and entertained the friends and families of the veterans and guardians on the flight.

Along the corridor leading to and from the airport gates men and women wearing vests bearing the POW/MIA stickers held U.S. flags in greeting. Active military personnel, mostly from the Air Force and Navy and Reserves units, were on hand in uniform. They were cheered by the crowd as they walked in.

As the veterans on the Honor Flight went past, people reached out to shake their hands and to say "welcome home." There were as many tears among the crowd as with the veterans and guardians who were on the flight.

Bruce Brown, owner of Paparazzi in Peoria Heights, went along as a volunteer to photograph the event. "I was a Marine photographer and wanted to do this. I'm glad I did. The raw emotions of everybody when they got to the monument was unbelievable to see. And now this? Wow. This was quite an operation. I'm glad they did it," he said.

Brown noted he will host a fundraiser at Paparazzi this summer for future Honor Flights.

Among the crowd were several Vietnam veterans who received no welcome home parties and often were derided at airports when returning from duty, so unpopular was the U.S. involvement in that conflict.

One veteran, who didn't want his name used, said every time he sees another Vietnam veteran bearing a ribbon that indicates he was in country there "I say, 'welcome home.' It's about time they heard it, I think. It's very gratifying to see this."

That veteran said he didn't personally face derision, "but I was in the Air Force. People didn't look at us as 'baby killers' the way they did other vets."

A veteran of Korea said that while he and his fellow soldiers were not treated poorly when they returned home, nor were they treated as heroes. "In my opinion, we all were there for our country, serving our country. This was a long time coming," he said.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).