"Honor Flights"

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

A little over a month ago KAKE News was asked to go on a two day assignment to our nations capital. The assignment turned out to be much more than just another story.

Honor Flights take World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. to see the World War II Memorial and more. On this Veterans Day at 5, 6 and 10, we want to take you with us. We'll show you how this long overdue and very emotional honor for some, comes just in time.

It's almost as if they've gone back in time 60 years.

Their faces are wrinkled now, their walks are frail but like decades ago, military men and women are taking a trip. One that will be challenging and exhilarating at times and very emotional always.

This is the 11th Honor Flight for event organizers Mike Van Campen and Dan Curtis. They started putting together the trips five years ago. Several dozen volunteers are needed to get all 117 veterans checked in for their flights. The sight of these heroes in the early morning hours at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport brought many bystanders to their feet.

Honor may be the most important thing these flights give World War II veterans. So many of them went right from the battlefield to the nation's factories and farms without fanfare.

For Mike Wiley and his father, Parker, the trip could not have come too soon. "He's suffering from liver cancer and doesn't have very long to live," Wiley says of his dad. "He's been staying alive for this trip. He's been living with me the last month and a half and it's one last thing I get to do with Dad."

The arrival in Baltimore brought more emotion. The fire department there formed an arch of gratitude over the plane. And once off the plane, congratulations and cheers greet the veterans.

Everyone who is not a veteran on the plane, even journalists, are guardians to get the heroes off and on planes, buses, or in wheelchairs. All are just making sure the veterans' needs are met. The first stop for the World War II heroes is for picture taking under the Kansas pillar. Some drank in the gratitude.

"I haven't had a lot of people thank me until today. I think until today, I had two thank you notes for being in the service and they are both in my scrapbook."

Others tried to cope with the first time they had the opportunity for closure. "I tried to put it way behind, and I did for years. When something like this is...it all comes back to you."

By the time we got to Iwo Jima Memorial it was dusk. The evening sunset vigil began. The emotion and the patriotism was palpable. It was time to honor those who couldn't make the trip. But Bob Collins' flag from his casket did make it to Washington. It was carried by his son, Mark, who is also a guardian on the trip.

"Honor Flights" KAKE News at 6

It is a scene we often see on television. But on this autumn morning in our nation's capital, the wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for these Kansas World War II veterans is so much more.

United States Army Veteran Fred Price said, "It gets to me. It really does. I don't know why. I thought I was kinda hard nosed."

It is hard for all of us in attendance to be, as Price puts it, "hard nosed" as we look out at over more than 100 Kansas veterans with their hats held over their hearts watching the ceremony. Four of the men were asked to lay the wreath this day at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

"I was thinking about these poor boys who are buried here. Nobody knows, but God, who they are," United States Air Force Veteran Lonnie Cordess says. Among the thousands of tombstones lie many of their friends.

Tears were also shed where history lies at Fort McHenry in Baltimore where after a harrowing battle, almost 200 years ago, our national anthem was written.

Just like the job they had to do while serving our country so many years ago, all 117 veterans had a job to do. Their assignment? Coordinating the daily unveiling of the flag. As the night colors came down, these Kansas veterans were honored by being asked to hoist the day colors.

Walking history, hoisting the flag at a very historical place...an intensely emotional time. "Tears come out of my eyes... just like now. I can hardly talk about ..especially when our flag is raised..it really hurts, " United States Army Veteran Don Baldrachi said.

Don Baldrachi is a Pearl Harbor survivor. "I lost three good buddies... One of them from Altus, Oklahoma by the name of Leo Coppage," Baldrachi recalled. "I don't think there's one night I don't go to bed and dream about it or see it or something...to this day."

That's why Honor Flight organizers say these trips to Washington are so much more than just a trip. Most of these World War II veterans went straight from the battlefield to the farm fields and factories.

This may be the first and last time for this generation to honor them and to say thank you. "...when I got off the plane at the airport here in Baltimore tears come from my eyes because I was greeted by the military. And they just waved, and waved, and waved. It's wonderful I tell you."

"Honor Flights" KAKE News at 10

They gathered in the early morning hours at Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport. "He's suffering from liver cancer and doesn't have very long. He's been staying alive for this trip," Mike Wiley said of his father veteran Parker WIley.

But it was a trip that the Wileys would do everything to make. A trip that brought smiles, tears and much-needed closure to 117 Kansas veterans. We showed you the intense emotion these Kansas veterans felt when they saw the World War II Memorial for the first time. "I tried to put it way behind, and I did for years. When something like this is...all comes back to you," United States Navy Veteran Bill Phillips said.

The laying of the wreath at Arlington National Cemetery, and the vigil at dusk were a chance to remember fellow soldiers and sailors who didn't make it back from war alive. "I tell you I don't think there's one night that I don't go to bed and dream about it, and see it or something," Pearl Harbor survivor and veteran Don Baldrachi said.

At the Holocaust Museum, the room that brought some semblance of closure for about a dozen of the veterans, was bathed in candlelight. Each man lit a votive under the name of the concentration camp he faced near the war's end. United States Army Veteran Wally Winter said, "The first thing I saw as I came in were those bodies stacked there. It's hard to get it out of your mind over the years." Winter reads an inscription, "...'from cemeteries of American soldiers who have fought and died to defeat Nazi Germany'...and I salute them."

One last salute before boarding the plane for home. And then, never expecting the welcome they would get when they arrived at the airport home, literally hundreds of Kansas military, veterans and civilians lined the halls of Wichita's airport to greet them. A much bigger welcome than when they came home that first time many years ago.

"These guys are walking history and they deserve recognition," Dan Curtis, one of the Honor Flights organizers said.

And Parker Wiley and his son, Mike? Well they made it. But one week to the day of their return, Parker Wiley died. He was 86-years-old. "He had asked me two days before...he didn't think he could make it, but he did," Mike Wiley said of his dad. "He did what he wanted to do. He was peaceful and he's happy."

For more information on how you can help or to nominate someone for a flight, visit the Central Prairie Honor Flights website at http://www.centralprairiehonorflights.org or just click on the words "Related Links" below this story.

KAKE will air the Veterans Parade Sunday at 3:30 p.m., with an hour long special on the Honor Flight to air at 4:00.

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