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G.I. Joe Goes to Washington

WWII vets, average age 92, transform into 18-year-olds during trips to D.C.



With a flurry of flags crossing the thoroughfare, it wasn't a typical Sunday morning at Portland International Airport. Milling through the crowds were hundreds of flag-bearing veterans, waiting to greet their brothers and sisters returning from Washington, D.C. on an Honors Flight for WWII vets. The group—average age 92—had departed Portland the previous Thursday for two quick days in the nation's capital before coming home to Oregon.

Among the well-wishers were senior veterans, including a 98-year-old WWII veteran who served on a destroyer in the Pacific and engaged in 10 major battles. Another woman visiting from the Netherlands was there to welcome her 98-year-old aunt, who served as a nurse during the war.

There were sons and daughters and grandchildren and greats, all waiting to pay their respects as the 40 veterans de-planed and exited the secured terminal area. Honor guards lined both sides of the crowded hallway as a bagpiper led the returning vets through the crowd, which honored them with 20 minutes of applause.

Finally, the veterans gathered at the front of the airport terminal for a group photo and a round of "God Bless America." At the nearby Shilo Inn, they were individually presented with a "Quilt of Honor" award before returning to their homes throughout Oregon.

The four-day whirlwind for this group of men and women was coming to an end, but they were all smiles. Many of them describe the trip as a once in a lifetime opportunity...and life-changing as well.

The Bend Heroes Foundation

Since 2006, the Bend Heroes Foundation has worked to honor WWII veterans in Central and Eastern Oregon. Since the inception of the Honor Flight trips in 2010, 125 WWII veterans from Bend alone have traveled to Washington, D.C., many for the first time. Hundreds more from all points in Eastern Oregon have been honored with free flights to the nation's capital.

Foundation chairman Dick Tobiason says, "Most of these veterans haven't been to Washington, so we treat them first class. They saved the world, so why wouldn't we do this for them in return?" Tobiason, a Vietnam veteran, has helped organize and lead more than a dozen Oregon Honor Flight trips, escorting nearly 600 WWII veterans to the nation's capital.

The group has raised approximately $700,000 for its mission and uses no taxpayer dollars in its efforts. On this current trip, a single Central Oregonian was among the 40 veterans. Carl Smith of Madras, age 97, fought in the Battle of the Bulge. In that historic event late in the war, 8,500 American troops died combating the German Army's last-ditch effort to break the Allied offensive. That effort depleted the Germans' resources and the war ended soon after.

Yvonne Drury, vice chair of the Bend Heroes Foundation, has accompanied veterans on three trips, and said she cries every time because the experience is so moving. "They are shocked to know that anyone remembers what they did." She says their experience of observing the World War II Memorial is often soul-searching and healing in nature. "Everyone of them says they are so glad they went. When you see how they dredge up those memories and how they deal with them, it's very heartwarming."

Drury characterizes the WWII generation as a humble generation. "They did their job. They came home, went to work, started families, and they didn't say anything for years. It's only been the last 10 to 20 years that they've opened up, and people have paid more attention to their stories and given them the recognition that they really deserve."

Drury's father, Jack Wilson, was a vet just like the one she describes. At age 96, Wilson made the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., with his granddaughter Leigh Anne Denney accompanying him. "When they were on their way to the World War II Memorial, I was on a flight with a lot of senior citizens," says Denney. "Coming back I was on a plane with a bunch of 18-years-olds. They were all goofing around, having fun, enjoying each other like they did years ago in the military."

The D.C. Honor Schedule

It would be advantageous to be 18 years old again, considering the Honors trip schedule. There are 11 stops, beginning with the flight. Upon arrival, the veterans are greeted with a flag ceremony, bused to a hotel and taken to dinner.

The next morning, the first stop is the World War II Memorial, where each veteran is presented with a flag that was flown over the United States Capitol. From there they go to the Capitol building where they are greeted by members of the Oregon Senate and Congressional delegations. Then it's on to the Navy Memorial.

The following day the group goes on tours of the Lincoln and Korean War Memorials, the Vietnam War Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and the Roosevelt Memorial. Franklin D. Roosevelt was Commander in Chief during the majority of the war.

A special stopover is the "Women in Military Service to America" Memorial, or WIMSA, which tells the story of women in the military from WWI to the present. "One of the reasons we go there," says Tobiason, "is because of an individual display honoring an Oregon woman who attended Central Oregon Community College, Jessica Ellis, who was killed in Iraq during her second tour as a medic." The display contains her uniform, boots and medals. Another special attraction at the WIMSA Memorial is a quilt made in Morrow, Oregon, that includes the names of all women in the United States who lost their lives serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jessica Ellis' name appears in the center of the quilt.

The visit concludes with a tour of Arlington National Cemetery and a stop at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before the flight home.

The Home Greeting

Among the hundreds of well-wishers greeting the current group of WWII veterans were four women belonging to the Central Oregon Chapter of a national organization called "Patriot Pin Ups," a group of ladies who dress in fashions worn in the 1940s and take part in activities benefiting veterans.

Cydnee Schoettler supported veterans' causes in Arizona before moving to Central Oregon and starting the local chapter. "It brings them joy to see us dressed this way and to be reminded of those times. It's the least I can do to help veterans," she says.

Maxine Gunther, another Patriot Pin Up lady, says that even though she personally didn't serve, she volunteers as a way of honoring veterans because her brother, mother and father all served in the Armed Forces.

Pin Up lady Brandi Guy is a veteran who says she volunteers because she sees all the struggles veterans face following their service. As she watched the WWII veterans return to Oregon, she said she was filled with emotion.

Judith Burger of Redmond served as Commander of the Veterans of Foregin Wars (VFW). Burger says she comes from a family of veterans and is glad to volunteer as a Pin Up. "I come from a big veteran family, and I got to accompany my grandfather to the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge," which she says was a very emotional experience for her and for her family.

The Quilt to take Home

The final stop on the tour: a Portland Shilo Inn, where veterans were honored with quilts sewn by members of the "Quilts of Valor" organization. Each quilt takes over 100 hours to make and is customized and awarded to the individual veteran in a personalized ceremony. Maureen Orr Eldred says, "We hope the quilts will give them comfort and healing, wrapped in the love that we put in them." Quilts of Valor have awarded over 145,000 quilts nationwide in the 13 years the organization has been around.

Respecting the Vet

While the Honors Flight program is the primary focus of the Foundation, another effort has taken nine years and is highly visible on many of Oregon's highway systems. The group has raised the money and cleared the bureaucratic tape to place 67 signs—honoring WWI to current veterans—on five highway systems. Highway 97 from California to Washington State, passing through the heart of Bend, is designated the WWII Veterans Historic Highway, with 18 signs honoring vets.

Meanwhile, Tobiason, of the Bend Heroes Foundation, says that WWII veterans consistently tell him the Honors Flight was the trip of a lifetime. "If you go on a trip, you find out that America loves these people who saved the world." Millions of people were killed in WWII. "If the Americans hadn't led the Allies all over the world, it would have been many millions more."

Tobiason hopes to add another Bend veteran to the list next year, even while knowing that WWII vets' numbers are rapidly dwindling with age. "It's important for the veterans to see how our country loves them and honors them for what they did. These people literally saved the world seven decades ago," Tobiason says.

Drury, of the Bend Heroes Foundation, adds, "We'll take them to Washington as long as we can."

Take a listen to Brian Jennings' most recent SourceCast about this Oregon Honor Flight:

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