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Final Honor Flight Salutes Mississippi WWII Vets

There’s a milestone, of sorts, coming up this fall. It’s a marker that stirs thoughts of patriotism, honor, sacrifice, and freedom, as we observe our country’s birthday.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight has announced one final Honor Flight on October 1, 2013. For any interested Mississippi World War II veterans, this is the last “all hands on deck,” for a full, freedom-centered day in our nation’s capital.

This will be the group’s final sortie.

I have written about Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight before. It is a nonprofit group that was formed in the spring of 2011 as one of more than 100 Honor Flight Network “hubs” across the country. MGCHF has partnered with the Kiwanis Foundation on the Coast to raise funds and plan the flights, with a goal of carrying 500 Mississippi veterans to D.C.

The mission: to thank these heroes by affording them a trip to see their memorial on the National Mall. Since their inaugural flight in May 2011, MGCHF has made five trips, and taken 431 veterans from all over Mississippi to visit the WWII Memorial in Washington.

MGCHF is the only “hub” in Mississippi. It started with a challenge by Honor Flight South Alabama in late 2010 to do this for Mississippi’s WWII Veterans. According to board member Wayne Lennep, now a newly-minted Moss Point alderman, “Mississippi had no such program, while Alabama had four.” While MGCHF started out with a focus on Gulf Coast veterans, the flights quickly came to include any veteran, from anywhere in Mississippi.

The Honor Flight volunteers now have it down to a system. A lot of planning goes in to each flight, from the itinerary (the day starts at 5:00 am and ends with a heroes’ welcome around 7:30 p.m.) to details like wheelchairs, medical teams, and pairing guardians with veterans well before the plane takes off. Flights are planned with “guardian” chaperones who are assigned to each veteran making the flight. The vets and their guardians spend the day in D.C. seeing not only the WWII Memorial, but also other sites including the Lincoln, Korean and Vietnam Memorials, and the Iwo Jima Monument.

An emotionally moving visit to Arlington National Cemetery and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier concludes each tour, with a viewing of the Changing of the Guard and a wreath-laying by Mississippi veterans. On past Honor Flights, the veterans have been joined by Congressmen and other dignitaries along the way.

They then fly home the same night. Even on the return flight, the volunteers don’t miss special touches: Mississippi kids write thank you letters to the veterans, which are handed out during “Mail Call.” “Tears are plentiful from veterans and volunteers alike during that time on the plane,” says Lennep. I bet they are.

It’s a long day. But compared to what these vets sacrificed so many years ago, it’s a piece of cake.

The first flight’s success led to the next flight. And so on, so that this fall’s flight will be the sixth. Because our WWII vets are by now in their late-80s, there likely won’t be enough demand for a seventh mission. The Veterans Administration estimates that there are only about 1.4 million World War II veterans left nationwide, less than 10 percent of those who served during the war. About 1,000 of those veterans die every day. The median age for a World War II veteran in June 2011 was 92 years.

Gulf Coast Honor Flight operates with those facts in mind. Applications for the sixth flight are now being accepted, and WWII veterans from anywhere in Mississippi are urged to apply. Additional information and applications are available online at the organization’s website, www.mgchonorflight.org, or by mail to P.O. Box 1912 Gautier, MS 39553.

For Honor Flight volunteers, it has been a labor of love that has now stretched for almost as many years as the War lasted. Lennep emphasizes, “It is truly a team effort. The group desires no recognition for itself, but seeks to shine the light on these amazing members of the Greatest Generation.” Of course, the volunteers, like the veterans themselves, are Americans who get the meaning of the Fourth of July.

There is something quintessentially “American” about both the veterans and the Honor Flight volunteers who are making sure they see “their” memorial. They are heroes because they embody traits that make America exceptional: our willingness to serve, our commitment to those who do. A poignant reminder that freedom has never been free.

Cory T. Wilson is a Madison attorney with Heidelberg Steinberger Colmer & Burrow, P.A. Follow Cory on Twitter, @CoryWilsonMS, or email cory@corywilson.ms.

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