Honor Flights: A Salute to Veterans

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 15, 2013 15:51
Paul Becker (left) and Ken Finigian, with Finigian's son Steve

Paul Becker (left) and Ken Finigian, with Finigian’s son Steve

Two Tuolumne County veterans flew to Washington this fall to see the Capitol Mall monument to their World War II service.

The experience brought back memories, but what will stay with them is their heroes’ welcome at DC’s Dulles International Airport – nearly 100 schoolchildren waving American flags.

“It was a very emotional thing, these young people thanking us for our service,” says 92-year-old Paul Becker, a Marine and former fighter pilot who joined fellow Northern California vets on an Oct. 11-13 Honor Flight. “It made me teary eyed.”

“I’ll never forget it,” adds Ken Finigian, 89, a Navy aviation mechanic’s mate stationed stateside during the war. “These kids – I think a lot of them were Cub Scouts – came out in the pouring rain to meet us and reach out to shake our hands. That really meant a lot.”

Debbi Johnson, who with husband Tom volunteers to coordinate Northern California Honor Flights, says the reactions are typical. “A lot of these vets have never been thanked for their service before,” she says. “It touches them.”

Becker and Finigian were among Northern California vets on the all-expenses-paid flight – 30 men and one woman, a former Navy pharmacist’s mate.

Founded in 2005, the nationwide Honor Flight program’s goal is to fly as many of that war’s just over 1 million surviving veterans to see the nine-year-old World War II monument. So far about 100,000 vets, most of them in their 80s and 90s, have made the flights, which are funded solely by donations.

The Northern California Honor Flights, which average 30 vets per flight, cost about $45,000 each. “Whenever we raise enough money, we schedule another flight,” says Johnson, who founded the north state hub after taking a flight with her terminally ill father in 2007.

Memorable airport sendoffs and receptions, often organized by the Honor Flight “ground hubs,” are an integral part of the experience.

“It was a wonderful trip,” says Becker, who flew Corsairs from bases in the Philippines in 1944 and ’45. “We saw all the monuments, we were treated to dinners and we weren’t allowed to spend a dime.”

As many of the aging vets are wheelchair-bound or need walkers, they were joined by nearly 20 guardians, including Ken Finigian’s son Steve.

“It was great being with my dad for the weekend,” says Steve, who also helped other servicemen through the flights and a very busy day in Washington.

The weekend began with a spectacular sendoff from San Francisco Airport, arranged with the help of the USO. Not only did throngs of young well-wishers bid the vets farewell, but airport fire engines sent streams of water over the Virgin America airliner as it left the gate.

After settling into their motel, the vets gathered for a dinner highlighted by accounts of their own World War II experiences, sparking memories and more stories. The next day they visited not only the WWII Memorial, but monuments to other wars and branches of the service.

Between the Washington and Lincoln Monuments, the $200 million WWII memorial was completed in 2004 and includes 56 17-foot-high granite pillars representing states and U.S. territories at the war’s end.

The memorial also features two major arches signifying the war’s Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. On the west side of the memorial, with a view of the capitol reflecting pool and the Lincoln Memorial behind it, is the Freedom Wall. It bears 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in the war. “Here we mark the price of freedom,” reads its legend.

Honor Flight participants were able to tour the memorial despite the partial government shutdown in effect at the time.

“The rangers moved the barricades and let us go through,” says Becker. “But I looked back and there were some kids they wouldn’t let in. What a shame.”

At least one of the group, however, had lost none of the fighting spirit that got him through the war.  “I didn’t get his name,” recounts Steve Finigian, “but this old vet took one of barriers and shoved it aside, like he was saying ‘I don’t care about this political crap, the people have a right to be here.’ ”

One plus: “I saw volunteers mowing the lawns and raking leaves on their own time,” says Becker. “That kind of thing renews your faith in the country.”

A buffet dinner ended the day, and the next morning the vets got another heroes’ sendoff at Dulles before returning to San Francisco.

“The whole thing was planned perfectly,” says Ken Finigian.  “I’d recommend an Honor Flight to any World War II vet who hasn’t been out to Washington.”

Becker, who somewhat reluctantly applied nearly a year ago after his wife and daughter “became kind of pushy about it,” agrees.

“We never had to worry about a thing,” Becker says. “We breezed through security at the airports, they brought us sandwiches on the plane, took care of our luggage and gave us more food than you can imagine.

“That these people care that much about us old vets is what will stay with me.”

 How to apply for an honor flight

It’s easy: Just download an application from the Honor Flight Northern California website – honorflightnorcal.org  – fill it out and send it in via email, fax or mail. Then wait.

“It might take 18 months or longer, but if you’re a vet, we’ll get you on a flight,” says Debbi Johnson, founder of Honor Flight’s Shasta County-based Northern California hub. “Over the past five years, we’ve made 16 flights with about 30 vets on each.”

This number, she adds, includes nearly 20 from Tuolumne, Calaveras or Amador counties.

The two-page application asks information on each vet’s service history and medical condition.

All men and women who served in the military are invited to apply. Terminally ill veterans, no matter which war they served in, move to the top of the flight list. Otherwise World War II vets receive priority. The all-expenses-paid trips are highlighted by a visit to the WWII Memorial.

The needs of wheelchair-bound vets, those having difficulty walking and those suffering from a wide range of non-contagious ailments will be taken care of by guardians aboard each Honor Flight and by the program’s volunteers.

The Honor Flight website also includes an application to join flights as a guardian, although the organization at this point has no shortage of guardians, who are often relatives of flight recipients. Guardians are responsible for their own expenses.

The Honor Flight program is nonprofit, has no major corporate sponsorships and no government support, Johnson says. Cash from private donors and veterans’ organizations supply almost all program funding.

No donations are accepted from WWII vets, who organizers say “have given enough.”

“The more money we can raise, the more flights we can schedule,” says Johnson.

Tax-deductible gifts can be made through the website or sent to Honor Flight Northern California, c/o 17669 Warwick Place, Anderson, CA 96007.

 Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 15, 2013 15:51
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