By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
“Time is of the essence.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 640 Word War II veterans die each day.
Honor Flight flies veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam to Washington, D.C., to see all the veteran memorials and other monuments for free.
Organizers of a new branch of that group, Honor Flight of North Central West Virginia, made a presentation to the Marion County Commission at the Wednesday meeting.
Its goal is to fly 100 veterans from the area to D.C. on May 14, Butch Phillips and Aaron Hawkins told the commission.
To do that, it needs $50,000, or about $500 per veteran.
The Marion County Commission donated $5,000 to the program.
Hawkins talked about a recent tour from Huntington to the nation’s capital with 100 veterans and their guardians in November.
“It was a very emotional and moving day,” he said.
The Honor Flight Program is in 42 states with 130 hubs in the country. Huntington airport became a hub this year, Hawkins said.
He said when he returned that day, he knew one thing.
“This is happening in North Central West Virginia.”
“This is a community project,” Hawkins said. “We are here to make people aware how important this is.”
He said veterans will be honored with a full police escort through Washington, and be provided with meals, and if needed, wheelchairs and oxygen. All for free.
“This will happen in North Central West Virginia,” he said. “We’re going through Huntington because they are set up with the national group and have a tax-exempt status.”
“Time is of the essence,” he said.
“Our priority is World War II vets, then Korean veterans and then Vietnam. Special priority is given to anyone diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than 12 months.
“Our World War II veterans are in their late 80s, early 90s,” Hawkins said. “There were 16 million of them in World War II. Now it’s down to 1.6 million.”
If you can’t donate money to the cause, you can still help the Honor Flight veterans, he said.
“On May 14, be at the (North Central West Virginia) airport when we take off and especially when we return.”
One of the more moving parts of the November excursion took place right after the plane landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.
People saluted the veterans and thanked them for their sacrifices.
“I was glad to have been part of that,” he said.
Phillips added “on a sad note” that one of his assigned veterans from that trip, Charlie Lemasters, passed away on Monday.
“That just shows how important it is to do this.
“That’s sad to see, but that’s what’s happening to these 90-year-old folks. They’re not going to last much longer, and we have to get this done in a hurry.”
Guardians are needed to escort the veterans at the memorials. They pay their own way — $250 — which is not payable until the guardian has been trained and assigned a plane, Hawkins said.
“You can adopt a guardian and pay his or her way. There are lots of ways for us to come up with that $50,000,” he said.
Phillips and Hawkins are both veterans: Phillips served in the U.S. Army from 1966-69, and Hawkins in the U.S. Air Force from 1971-75.
“A lot of the veterans had never been to Washington or been on a plane since they were in the service,” Hawkins said.
“There were a lot of handkerchiefs and tissues, tears and appreciation,” he said of that first flight from West Virginia.
“They felt the pride that someone recognized them.”
Hawkins was assigned as guardian to Wally Albright, who had fought in France in World War II.
“He was totally wheelchair-bound the entire day,” he said. “It was emotional when we entered the airport terminal and saw all these people standing there, greeting them, saluting them.”
Honor Flight provides what the veterans need to “make sure they have a great day, that it’s their day,” Hawkins said.
Honor Flight is available to all veterans of the World War II, Korean and Vietnam periods, whether or not they served overseas.
“This is for all veterans,” Phillips said. “They served. They took three or four years out of their lives.”
“So we can have the freedom to be talking about this today,” Hawkins said.
The commission will meet in regular session at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, in Room 403, J. Harper Meredith Building, Fairmont.
Email Debra Minor Wilson at email@example.com.