Of my four grandparents, three are Veterans. My mother’s parents are both World War 2 Veterans. My grandmother was in the Navy and my grandfather was in the Army. My father’s father is a Korean War Veteran. Of the three of them, my maternal grandfather has been the most open with his military experience. He has been involved, over the years, with various Veteran groups. He volunteers at the VA Hospital to this day. He use to take trips for reunions. In fact, my grandmother joined him until she was too frail to continue.
I spend a lot of time with Norman. In the years since I moved to Boston, it has been very important to me that I get to spend time with both my grandparents. Both are in their mid-90s. I don’t know how much time I have left. When Norman asked me to join him on a program called Honor Flight I said yes before I even knew what I agreed to do.
Honor Flight is an organization that takes Veterans to DC and gives them a chance to see the various monuments and memorials to our nations military branches and the wars they have fought. The New England hub right now only takes World War 2 Veterans. The trip is free for the Veterans. Guardians have to pay to go with them. A few hubs, New England among them, actually allow family members to go. Many have stopped doing it. They have found a few bad, entitled apples have made it more work than it is worth for them.
As Norman’s guardian I was completely responsible for him. I made sure he had everything he needed. I helped him get around. When he was tired, I pushed his wheel chair. Trust me, that wheel chair work out is probably the best workout I have had in a while. I wheeled him up hill in 85 degree heat and about 95% humidity. I got my heart rate up pretty high. The trip is all about the Veterans, but sometimes family members forget that. They want to wander off for pictures. They want to make sure they see as much as they can. Plus, these are men and women who are often use to just doing what they want. If they can walk, like Norman, they want to just go. I often had to jog to catch up with him during the day.
It is worth it if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Our trip was the weekend before Memorial Day. We had been to a training a few weeks before. It was more for me to be ready for the day, but he went to meet some of the other Veterans. They prepared us for helping the Veterans, but little for the itinerary of the day. We knew the basics: leaving very early, they take care of everything, returning late at night.
We had to be at Logan Airport by 5am. Those who came from farther than us must have been completely exhausted by the end of the day. Norman and I barely slept from excitement ourselves. We were on a charter flight by 8am. From where we met at Logan to the gate, there was more fanfare than we expected. We had an police escort to the terminal. As we walked to the gate we were greeted by police, other Veteran organization, ROTC units, and curious people just at the airport for their own flights. People stayed at the gate with us. Younger ROTC members talked to the Veterans about their war experiences. People walking to their stopped to find out what we were doing.
The flight out was quiet. We all knew the day would be long so we wanted to rest while we could. It was not a long flight. We landed in Baltimore to a water cannon salute on the runway and more people waiting to greet us. We were assigned to one of our three buses. We spent the entire trip on the same bus. We made our way to the World War 2 Memorial and watched a video about it as we drove from Baltimore to D.C..
Norman had been to the memorial a few years before, but I had never been before. It is a large memorial split into two halves: Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Each state has a pilar, each battle location in that theater is put around a fountain. You would see people leaving pictures at various places around the memorial. We walked around with Norman’s friend Lloyd and his son. We took pictures. You could see the Washington and Lincoln memorials from where we stood. A university graduation had ended just as we arrived to we walked around with the graduates and their families. There were two other Honor Flight groups there as well. It was crowded and exciting. We spent quite a while there before getting back on the bus.
The itinerary of the day was never clear. We didn’t know where we were going until we got there. We had a very general idea of what we could get to see, but we were warned that we may have to do some drive-bys if time didn’t permit the time to walk around. Our next stop, after a drive through the city, was the Navy Memorial. This was right across the street from the National Archive. Norman stayed in the bus, but I got out to take pictures. I loved the simple way they used the color of the concrete to design the map. It almost looked like a rain storm had simply wet the ground in the shape of a map.
We did know we would make it to Arlington Cemetery to see the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. This was a very touching part of the trip. The guards don’t speak other than to explain the ceremony we are watching. The guards scraped the side of their shoes as they walked by. While it would simply appear as a falter, it was really a gesture of thanks to the men who served their country. It was one of the few times I found my eyes tearing up. I expected it to happen more often than it did.
We got to stop at the Lincoln Memorial. We only had 30 minutes to decide which of the three memorials we wanted to see at that stop: Lincoln, Vietnam, or Korean. Norman and I made the decision to see the Korean War Memorial. Our logic was that we had both seen the Vietnam Memorial and Lincoln Monument in the past. Neither of us had seen the Korean War Memorial. I am glad we did.
The Korean War Memorial is a very moving memorial. Like the Vietnam Memorial it includes an expanse of grey granite. Instead of names engraved on it, it features faces of people. They look like shadows and reflections on the granite. It is very haunting. The statues next to it are suppose to be actual men who served.
I am very happy we picked this one out of the three. You can see from my picture how the reflection of the people at the memorial and the people embossed on the granite merge with each other. There were flowers and wreaths left at various places around the memorial. There were school groups and families around as well. So many people came up and thanked Norman for his service. He even commented how tired his hand would be by the end of the day.
What I learned about Norman on this trip was fascinating. I learned more about his service than ever before. I knew he had been in Northern Africa and Italy, but I learned that he had also been stationed in Northern Ireland for a while. I knew he had driven an ambulance, but it really hit how much death he would have seen because of this. He approaches his service with humor. He didn’t see combat, but he still doesn’t talk about what he did see. I realized how much he and I are alike. We are both sarcastic and use humor to deflect. I didn’t want to push him to talk more than he wanted to knowing how I react in similar situation.
The last memorial we got to see was the Air Force Memorial. This one is in Arlington, just outside the cemetery. You see the spires as you drive around the city. This was another beautiful memorial. When you stand at the edge of the spires you can see the Pentagon, the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, and the Lincoln Monument in the distance. The memorial was quieter than any other. We were the only ones there for quite a while. By this time the sky had cleared and we were tired. Norman stayed in the bus again, but I walked around. I love the pictures I got here, especially they one on the left. The statues of the color guard stand to the right of the spires. Like at the WW2 Memorial, you could see pictures left by other visitors.
They took us to dinner after this. We had lunch on the bus, but we went to a hotel in Baltimore for dinner. It was a chance for us to relax a bit before the flight home. We sat with Lloyd again and with people we had not met on other buses. We heard about what they had taken away from the day. On the drive to the hotel they had done a mail call. I had contacted the family to write letters to Norman. While not everyone in the family wrote something, there were a few unexpected ones from people he didn’t expect.
The whole thing doesn’t end until we got back to the Logan police station. Even as we landed and walked to the shuttles at Logan, people greeted us. It was 11pm on a Sunday night, but Boy Scouts waited to greet us. It was a nice way to end a day. I passed out as soon as we went to bed.
They were very good to us on the trip. They gave us certificates, played games, and even entertained us as we waited for our flight home. I had time to get a few souvenirs. I am so glad I was the one who got to go with Norman on this trip. I would love to go again (even though I would have to pay for it) as a volunteer. I would help a Veteran who didn’t have family to go with him or her. It may not be possible for a while, but someday I am sure I will. Until then, I am working on making a photo book for Norman with my pictures. I have so many that I took to make sure I could.