For 14 years, Sauk Valley-area veterans have been flying to Washington, D.C., for free to see the national military memorials and to share their stories, laughter and heartfelt emotions.
Two more Honor Flights are on the schedule for next spring or summer, with the dates to be determined as soon as the planes are booked. There often are flights in the fall, as well, and a waiting list will be formed.
Veterans from the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam eras are encouraged to sign up as soon as possible, as well as any veteran facing a terminal illness.
There are some positive changes to the Lee and Whiteside programs, including the addition of several new counties to serve regional veterans and a new way of selecting volunteer guardians.
The Honor Flight Network was created in 2005 by Jeff Miller and Earl Morse with a mission to honor U.S. veterans by bringing them to Washington, D.C. for a day to see the memorials that commemorate their service and other notable historical sites. Donations keep the program afloat.
The Whiteside County chapter was launched in 2009 and the Lee County chapter in 2010, both under the umbrella of the regional hub, Honor Flight of the Quad Cities, one of 131 hubs in 45 states nationwide. It serves veterans within a 75-mile radius.
Most WWII veterans have taken the flight; those who have not should sign up as soon as possible.
It makes for a long day – the group flies out of the Quad Cities about 4 a.m. and returns home about 10 p.m. – but no one who ever made the trip has regretted it, and many make friendships that last a lifetime, said Stephen Garrington, director of Honor Flight of the Quad Cities.
The 55th Whiteside County Honor Flight was Nov. 8, 2022. A majority of the 102 vets on that flight – from Whiteside, Lee, Rock Island, Carroll and Clinton, Iowa, counties – served during the Vietnam War.
Since its inception, the Lee County chapter has sent 493 vets – 83 who served in WWII, 83 who served in the Korean War and 327 who served in Vietnam.
Now it’s branching out and will be helping veterans from Ogle, Bureau, Putnam and La Salle counties, where there are no chapters.
When they fly, each vet is accompanied by a volunteer guardian whose role is to help in any way possible, including with potential medical issues, so that no veteran – especially one that uses a wheelchair – refuses to take the trip for fear of being burdensome or not being able to handle the day’s activities.
Guardians must pay their own cost of $400, which is recorded as a charitable donation.
In an effort to make the experience more meaningful to both the veterans and guardians, Honor Flight no longer is allowing family members to be guardians, Garrington said.
There are several reasons for the change, which Garrington said has been welcomed by chapter leaders and vets alike.
Guardians consider it a privilege to serve a veteran in this way, which is why Honor Flight gets hundreds of applications from people who are willing to take a day off work and pay their own way to be of service, he said.
“We really want these volunteer guardians to have a day to spend with a veteran,” Garrington said. “It’s a good way for them to understand what veterans are going through.
“If they’re going to take a day off, and pay $400 to go, they’re going to honor that veteran.”
Family members get to hear stories from their veterans any time, Garrington said, so this opens an opportunity for a veteran to make a new friend. They often feel more comfortable sharing stories of their service with those who haven’t heard them.
By sending along a stranger, “we are establishing a special new relationship outside of the family,” Garrington said.
Honor Flight officials learned that the veteran often was paying the guardian’s fee, which was not the intent of the program, and that choosing a family member to take sometimes caused unnecessary strife, Garrington said.
In any event, only about one-third of the guardian applications in the past came from family members, he said, and exceptions can be made: Honor Flight will consider a request by any family member who has a specific reason for wanting to accompany a vet.
How to apply
Veterans who served in World War II between Dec. 7, 1941, and Dec. 31, 1946, in the Korean War from June 27, 1950, to Jan. 31, 1956, or in the Vietnam War from Dec. 28, 1961, to June 7, 1976, will qualify for the Honor Flight, as will veterans facing terminal illnesses.
To volunteer or for information on the local Honor Flight efforts, call Jim Travi or Tom Bushman of the Lee County chapter at 815-535-8047 or 815-440-3054, or contact Gary Farral of the Whiteside County chapter at firstname.lastname@example.org. They also can provide applications.
Go to HonorFlightQC.org or the Honor Flight of the Quad Cities Facebook page, or call 563-388-3592 for applications or information.
Tax-deductible corporate or individual donations can be made to:
• Lee County Honor Flight Committee, P.O. Box 986, Dixon, IL 61021
• Whiteside County Honor Flight, P.O. Box 400, Sterling, IL 61081
Trinity Cares is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that raises money for local Honor Flights. Call Brett Nicklaus of Trinity Insurance and Financial Services at 915-288-5800, or go to trinityifs.com/trinity-cares to donate or for information.