How Honor Flights Are Giving Veterans the Recognition They Deserve
A commotion rippled through the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) Friday morning as the distinctive notes of "Scotland the Brave" rang out through the terminal. "Please join us in the middle of the terminal to thank our veterans for their service as they depart on the 60th Honor Flight departing out of Austin," a booming voice announced over the public service system.
Half a dozen Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers, looking particularly sharp, marched forward bearing flagpoles as two officers from the Austin Police Department marched behind them, dressed in kilts and sharp regalia, one beating on a marching snare drum and the other expertly playing a set of bagpipes.
Volunteer "guardians" flanked a procession of 40 veterans, many in wheelchairs, as they made their way to Gate 21 to board Southwest Flight 940, bound for Washington, DC. One World War II veteran shared the front row placement of honor with a Korean War veteran, while a second Korean War vet was right behind. The rest of the veterans on Honor Flight Austin #60 fought in the Vietnam War.
As the procession progressed, fellow travelers began gathering in the middle of the concourse, cheering and saluting the veterans as they passed. Parents explained the event to their children in hushed whispers while other bystanders dabbed at the corners of their eyes.
Gate 21 was generously decorated with sparkly bunting, flag-themed décor and other patriotic tributes, which extended far into the arches of the jetbridge. Upon arrival, the veterans were escorted to the front rows of the Southwest boarding pillars for priority boarding access, while a local musician sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Amazing Grace" was performed on the bagpipes.
Mini cupcakes and other refreshments were passed around to the veterans as they waited for passengers from the previous flight to deplane. An air of reverent excitement pervaded the area as other travelers came up to the elderly men to thank them for their service.
"Oh, I'm extremely excited about this opportunity," Vietnam veteran John Wicks told TPG. "There are no words for this." The Vietnam veteran next to John carefully handed over his cellphone and quietly requested a photo of himself to commemorate the occasion.
Friday's flight was the 60th such honor flight organized out of Austin by Honor Flight Austin, the local branch of national nonprofit Honor Flight, which honors the sacrifices of American war veterans by facilitating trips to visit the nation's capital.
Top priority for honor flights is given to the nation's most senior veterans from World War II, as well as the Korean War and Vietnam War. Transportation, housing and meal costs are fully subsidized for veterans, while guardians typically contribute several hundred dollars toward their own expenses for the trip.
Honor Flight has 130 local hubs like Honor Flight Austin covering 45 of the 50 states, which collectively have sent more than 222,000 veterans to Washington, D.C., since the organization's inception in 2005. Each veteran's trip is made possible solely by donations from the public, although the organization still has a waiting list of more than 38,000 veterans. It's a race against the clock to get senior and terminally ill veterans to DC's war memorials while they still have the opportunity.
Every now and then, an Honor Flight chapter has enough funds and veterans to charter an entire flight at a cost ranging from $45,000 to more than $75,000. But a typical Honor Flight trip is operated on standard commercial flights, at a cost of around $12,000 to $15,000 per Honor Flight.
"One of the most meaningful things you can do for the veterans is to have a presence at both the send-off and the welcome home for these flights," said Joyce King, who has volunteered with various chapters of Honor Flight since 2013. "When you see a large number of the community all out cheering, it means everything to them because that wasn't the kind of welcome home they received when coming back from the previous wars, during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam."
King has had the opportunity to serve as a guardian for the Hudson Valley Honor Flight chapter in the past, using points to cover the cost of her plane ticket from New York to DC. "For our flight, American Airlines completely decorated the cabin and our flight attendants were wearing patriotic colors," she said. "There's usually a water salute for the plane in honor of the veterans as well: either on the way out, or in DC, or both."
Honor Flight #60 returns to Austin from Washington, D.C., Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Central time on Southwest Flight 4028. Locals are strongly encouraged to participate in a welcome home for the veterans, which will take place at 6 p.m. Central near the United Airlines ticket counter on the upper level of the main terminal.
All photos by Katherine Fan for The Points Guy.