BELTON — Honor Flight Austin is trying to generate interest for a flight to honor Bell County veterans this fall. On Monday, John Spahr, vice chairman of Honor Flight Austin, told the Bell County Commissioners about the group, what they do and why it’s necessary.
“The National World War II Memorial opened in 2004, 60 years after the war was over,” Spahr said. “Because it took so long to complete, many veterans didn’t get to see it.”
The Honor Flight Network works to make sure as many veterans as possible get to see the memorials erected to their service, Spahr said. He added it’s become something of a race against time.
“We are losing about 640 World War II veterans a day,” Spahr said. “The number is down from about 1,200 a day because we’ve already lost so many.”
The Honor Flight Network transports veterans to Washington to visit and reflect at the various memorials throughout the city.
The organization gives top priority to senior veterans — especially World War II survivors — along with other veterans who may be terminally ill.
10 flights last year
In 2013, Honor Flight Austin was able to make 10 flights with each flight having an average cost of about $40,000, said Tanya Kinney, an Honor Flight Austin spokeswoman.
Since the Austin chapter’s founding in 2010 the group has been able to fly 550 veterans to Washington.
“Honor Flight Austin is funded completely by private donations from those who recognize the great accomplishments and sacrifices of veterans and want them to see their memorial before it’s too late,” Kinney said. “We’ve also been fortunate to be supported by some wonderful organizations on a local level, which include the Order of the Purple Heart, American Legion and the (Veterans of Foreign Wars).”
The organization does a minimum of eight flights per year, four in the spring and four in the fall.
“Because there is a lot of moving around we try to keep the flights in the cooler parts of the year,” Kinney said.
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Lawson Beard was a passenger on an Honor Flight in April.
“They called up here a few days before they left and said that they had one available seat,” Beard said. The all-expense-paid trip, which included a flight on Southwest Airlines and a night at a Hilton hotel, included a motorcade from the William R. Courtney Texas State Veterans Home in Temple, where Beard lives, to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
“We got into Washington around 4 p.m. and we had dinner and got acquainted,” Beard said.
The getting acquainted part is one of the more powerful moments of the trip, Kinney said.
“It’s why dinner is so important,” she said. “It’s a chance for them to share their stories.”
At 8 p.m. all the veterans went to their rooms. They were up at 6 a.m. for breakfast and then got on a bus to visit the memorials, Beard said.
For the volunteers and guardians who take the trip with the veterans the time spent on the bus can be enlightening.
“When you’re on the bus with them it’s like living history,” Kinney said. Each trip goes to the National World War II Memorial, as well as the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery.
There also is a stop at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony, an event that Beard described as “sacred.”
“I saw a lot of history I didn’t even know had happened,” Beard said. “It was a thing of the past but it’s not something I’ll forget about.”
As Honor Flight has grown it has become increasingly popular, which has created a backlog.
“We do have a waiting list,” Kinney said. “And the veterans on our waiting list are given priority.”
Because of Honor Flight Austin’s limited number of flights per year and the diminishing number of World War II veterans, the group encourages outside participation in the form of community flights, such as the one they hope to arrange in Bell County.
“On a community flight everyone from the community gets to go because the community is paying for it,” Kinney said. “This two-day trip is a way of saying thank you to all who served during World War II, including those who did not make it home.”
The application for veterans is located on Honor Flight Austin’s website, honorflightaustin.org.