Though the experience of going on an Honor Flight trip is different for each veteran, one thing is certain: The veterans always come home changed.
“You hear stories like, ‘I didn’t want to come on this trip, but I’m so glad now I did because I feel like I can open up,’ ” said Lowry, founder and president of Honor Flight of Northeast Tennessee. “That’s the purpose of the Honor Flight program, to see if these men and women will open up instead of keeping (their experiences) locked in the toolbox.”
A nonprofit organization, Honor Flight invites terminally ill veterans and veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War to travel to Washington, D.C., for free to visit historical sites, including the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
Because World War II veterans are now in their 90s or older, Lowry said she and her fellow staff members are diligently searching for WWII veterans who are interested in taking the trip but have not yet been able to go.
“They are there,” said Wooden, public relations and media coordinator for Honor Flight of Northeast Tennessee, “but within the next five years, many of them that might be left are going to be beyond taking the trip, just because of the age factor.”
Since Honor Flight’s national headquarters was established in 2004, more than 130 hubs have been started in more than 40 states. Lowry started the Northeast Tennessee hub in 2012 after helping with two hubs in Missouri for four years.
“That bug bit me, and it’s still hanging on,” she said, “because I’m so honored to be a part of these men and women’s lives and to know what they’ve done and know they saved our country.”
Honor Flight offers trips twice a year and generally accepts 20-25 veterans per trip. During the weekend-long journey, veterans and their guardians travel by bus to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials, making a few stops in Virginia for special ceremonies and to visit the National D-Day Memorial.
Lowry said Honor Flight trips are funded solely by fundraisers, donations and sponsors. The next fundraiser, Table of Honor, will be held Sept. 9 at the Best Western Plus in Johnson City. The event will include dinner, entertainment and a live auction, and tables for eight can be purchased for $400.
Other upcoming fundraisers include Purse of Honor: Duffle ’n Dough — a yearlong campaign that will allow organizations to host the Honor Flight duffle bag and collect donations — and a New Year’s Eve party, which will be held at the Holiday Inn in Johnson City.
“If it wasn’t for the public and the community supporting by coming to these functions, these trips wouldn’t be made for our veterans,” Lowry said. “It’s no cost for our veterans, no cost at all, so that’s why we need help to keep it going.”
In the future, Wooden said Honor Flight hopes to offer a trip solely for Vietnam veterans. She and Lowry also hope to recruit more people to bring flags, signs and banners to the sendoffs, which typically begin at 6:45 a.m. on the day the veterans leave for the trip.
For more information or to apply for the trip, call Lowry at (423) 330-6189 or visit www.honorflightnetn.org.