In 2004, as builders in the nation's capital added the finishing touches to the National World War II Memorial, a physician's assistant in Ohio began asking some of his older patients about the memorial. They'd like to go, they said, and hoped some day that they would.
Earl Morse, in his job as a P.A., saw these patients on follow-up visits, and as the months passed, it became clear that for the vast majority, the dream would probably fade. They lacked the money for an airline ticket and hotel stay, and lacked the stamina for a long car trip to Washington. Morse wanted to find a way to get the World War II veterans to Washington to see the memorial. A retired Air Force captain and private pilot, he began flying veterans to Washington, and escorting them personally on a tour of the sights. Soon, he recruited other pilots, and the Honor Flight organization was born.
In late 2005, Jeff Miller, a dry cleaning company owner in Hendersonville, North Carolina, inspired by Morse's vision, had a similar idea but on a larger scale. Miller, the son of a World War II veteran and nephew of a B-24 bomber pilot who died in the war, had been a charter member of the National World War II Memorial Foundation. Like Morse, Miller lamented that many WWII veterans would be unable to visit the memorial.
One day Miller picked up the phone and called a US Airways official based in North Carolina. The voice on the other end said, "You run a dry cleaner in Hendersonville and you want to charter a 737?" Unfazed, Miller asked the man his age. "Your father is a World War II veteran, isn't he?" Miller said. "Don't you think he deserves the chance to see the memorial." Pause. "I'll call you right back," the U.S. Airways official said.
The seed that Morse had planted grew to a veritable forest of volunteerism, fundraising and goodwill toward the Greatest Generation veterans, who had been too busy building their communities to demand recognition for wartime service. On Sept. 23 and 24 and Nov. 4, 2006, HonorAir flew more than 300 WWII veterans from the Asheville airport to Washington, every single one of them absolutely free. HonorAir provided everything: a medical doctor and several EMTs, guardians who would attend to the needs of three to four veterans each, tour buses to take them the World War II Memorial and other national memorials, and a box lunch. Ticket agents and passengers lined the ropes as veterans emerged from the charter jets into the terminal. The veterans who had patriotically lifted their hands to their hearts many times in the 61 years since the war ended had never seen anything like the hero's reception they received in Washington. "CBS Sunday Morning" aired a moving feature about the HonorAir effort in September 2006. Geist updated the story in 2007 because it was a story that was so important to him.
"That story that CBS and Bill Geist did was the catalyst because Bill told the story of the veterans," Miller said.
Spurred by Miller's determination, perseverance and organizational savvy, the effort to fly veterans to the WWII memorial spread across America. In February 2007, Morse and Miller merged their organizations to create the Honor Flight Network.
Recognizing the need for a fulltime partner with a readymade corps of volunteers, Miller in 2007 reached out to Bob Haggard, an attorney. As president of the Asheville, N.C., Rotary Club, Haggard put the HonorAir project on the agenda of a Rotary planning meeting.
"I showed the 'CBS Sunday Morning' video and when that finished and they all had tears running down their cheeks, I said, 'We're going to do this as a community service project, aren't we?'" Haggard said. After the Asheville club sponsored three flights for Buncombe County veterans, Rotary clubs throughout Western North Carolina adopted HonorAir as a region wide project, sponsoring 10 more flights. From there the effort spread to Greenville, Roxboro, Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Wilmington and across the nation.
In communities from South Florida to Maine and westward to California, World War II veterans boarded planes, flew to Washington, humbly accepted the congratulations of hundreds of onlookers and toured the monument that memorializes their war.
"The attention that we're getting, just nothing ceases to amaze me," Benjamin King, a U.S. Navy veteran who served aboard the USS Nelson, told the Wilmington, N.C. Star-News after Marines in dress uniform met the Wilmington veterans at Reagan International Airport.
The flights gave guardians and other volunteers as much joy as it did veterans.
"It's a great way to meet people, hear stories, watch them with their comrades. I think it's therapeutic for some of them," John Cockrum, a founding board member of an Honor Flight group out of Wilmington, said after the local organization flew 102 veterans to Washington in May 2010.
The numbers continued to grow as efforts sprang up around the country. By the end of 2011, the Honor Flight Network and HonorAir will have flown more than 100,000 World War II veterans to see the memorial.
On September 14, 2011, Jeff and his wife, Tamara, traveled from North Carolina to Reagan National Airport to meet the 200th US Airways charter jet carrying World War II veterans. The long-shot call that Miller made five years before had brought about a partnership that helped tens of thousands of American heroes see the memorial.
"Many of the veterans who have taken the trip told us that without the program, they might not have had a chance to visit the memorial," said US Airways Chairman and CEO Doug Parker. "This is our way to say 'thank you' for their courageous actions and the US Airways family is proud to participate in this special and rewarding program."
As the flights to Washington end, Miller plans to evolve HonorAir and its corps of volunteers and supporters into a voice for veterans in Western North Carolina from all generations.