Honor Flight hits the road to serve more vets

Program founded in Springfield has taken more than 100,000 veterans to memorials.Military Springfield

Honor Flight Network, the Springfield-based organization that transports veterans free of charge to the National Mall to see their war memorials, reports that 20,000 veterans nationally are on its waiting list.

But, provided they once saved the world from tyranny or stopped cold the spread of communism, 18 southwest Ohio veterans should pack their bags for Sept. 27 — there are immediate openings for an Honor Flight leaving from Springfield.

There’s just one thing. This Honor Flight isn’t technically a flight.

Honor Flight has had a little-known RV program in the area since 2008, transporting 252 World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C., by road in motor homes driven by volunteers.

That’s just a sliver of the 100,000 veterans Honor Flight has taken to the nation’s capital since growing into a network of 119 regional hubs in 40 states, but it’s in keeping with the organization’s core purpose — to get these men and women to their memorials any way possible before their time runs out.

“Earl Morse felt there had to be another venue to get veterans to Washington, because there were veterans who said, ‘I’m not getting on a plane again. I’d rather walk,’ ” said Dian Holland, a South Charleston resident who coordinates the RV program.

Morse, the Enon resident who conceived Honor Flight in 2005 while working as a physician assistant at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ outpatient clinic in Springfield, also created the RV program.

It had been run out of the Springfield headquarters until last year, picking up veterans along the way in such states as West Virginia and Pennsylvania, but now will be run by Honor Flight Dayton and serve only Miami Valley veterans.

Either way, there’s no waiting list, Holland said, unlike the flights.

To apply for the next trip, contact Holland at 937-215-8385 or visit honorflightdayton.org.

Preference still will be given to World War II veterans for the trip that departs Sept. 27, but Honor Flight Dayton is now welcoming Korean War veterans, Holland said — a reminder that there are 600 fewer World War II veterans nationally every day, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

In fact, around the time Honor Flight began flying World War II veterans to Washington, there were close to four million of them, of the 16 million who served.

Just eight years later, that number stands at 1.2 million.

Drivers from Springfield, Urbana, Kettering and Franklin have donated their RVs — and, until last year, their own fuel — to convoy to Washington 13 times so far.

Donations will now reimburse drivers for their gas, Holland said. Five RVs will leave together from VFW Post 8673 on Leffel Lane on the next trip after a celebratory breakfast there, she said.

For Franklin resident Bernie Coppock, whose 30-foot Daybreak RV gets just eight miles per gallon, the $500 he was paying out of pocket was a small price to pay.

“The Greatest Generation made huge sacrifices for the free world,” Coppock, 78, said. “The least we can do is show our appreciation.”

“I’m not sure who gets more out of this,” he added, “us or the veterans.”

Veterans who’ve taken the RV trip say it’s a great way to travel. It takes three days total, as opposed to the flight, which jets veterans to Washington and back in a single day.

It also allows them to bypass security hassles at international airports.

“To me, one day would be just like a blur. That’s almost too much to absorb,” said Jack Graft, an 83-year-old Korean veteran and Centerville resident who made the RV trip in 2011. “I don’t think there’s anything we did that I’ll forget.”

Like the flights — which were the subject of a documentary film last year and a story in People magazine this spring — all expenses are paid for veterans through donations.

For the RV trip, that includes hotel stays, food and even snacks at gas stations along the way.

“Absolutely nothing comes out of your pocket,” Graft said.

“Anything they want,” Coppock added, “we take care of.”

The RV program allows buddies to make the trip together, Holland said, and the veterans usually pass the time playing cards.

If anything, it’s a throwback to what Honor Flight was when it relied on private planes flown out of the Springfield airport instead of commercial aircraft.

“On the first trip,” Coppock said, “we heard in detail about hip replacements, bypass surgery and knee surgery.”

“The ones that have seen combat,” he added, “it’s so ugly they don’t want to talk about it.”

Raymond Gadd, an 86-year-old Dayton resident who fought in the Pacific with the Army during World War II, has taken the RV trip a rare two times — once as a veteran and then, because his health is so good, as a guardian.

“I’d do it again tomorrow if I had the chance,” Gadd said.

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