In 2004, Earl Morse was struggling with unrealized dreams—but not his own, those of his patients.
The retired Air Force Captain was working at a small Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield, OH as a physician’s assistant. His patients, many of whom were World War II veterans, expressed a desire to go to the then-new memorial in Washington, D.C., but the physical and financial hurdles of the trip were too great.
So Morse, a private pilot, offered to fly one of his patients out to the nation’s capital. The patient broke down and cried, overcome with gratitude at Morse’s offer. “I wasn’t ready for him to start crying,” Morse told ABC News. “And that’s when I felt we were on to something.”
Morse recruited more pilots to help with the effort and the Honor Flight Network was born.
Today, over 100,000 veterans have come to Washington to see their respective war memorials, and another 16,000 are on the waiting list. There are more than 130 regional hubs operating Honor Flights in 43 states. Honor Flights are supported by individual contributions, veteran organizations, and businesses. Southwest Airlines, the official airline of the Honor Flight Network, committed over $2 million in free flights for veterans through 2015.
The experience for veterans is profound. “So many of my generation and people that I was with and knew overseas, they never had a chance to come home for all the ceremony,” World War II veteran and Honor Flight participant Ernest Mease told the Toledo Blade. “So people like me should feel that they are also doing it on their behalf.”
“It’s closure to their service and it opens a whole new chapter to friends and family who sometimes did not even know their loved one had honorably served,” said Honor Flight Reno Founder Jon Yuspa. “Some vets talk about this being one of the single greatest days of their lives.”
The flights have also reunited long-lost friends. Harold Ramse and Albert Knorr met in the spring of 1945, but parted ways after bootcamp. Sixty-five years later, the veterans boarded the same Honor Flight out of South Dakota. “I wouldn’t have known him but his daughter pointed him out to me and then I knew him,” Knorr told Keloland Television. “He wasn’t quite as young as he was back then.”
Stories like Knorr and Ramse’s are part of what make Honor Flights so special. “This is without question the most noble, most honorable thing that I’ve ever done with my life,” Morse said.
The chairman of the Honor Flight Network, James McLaughlin, will be appearing at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Aviation Summit on April 3. For more information on the summit, click here.