John Semander can’t stop talking about the trip he recently took with the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization that honors America’s veterans by flying them to Washington D.C. for a weekend of appreciation and sightseeing.
The 87-year-old Heights resident and Korean War veteran said he and the other 21 veterans who participated in the bus tour of the nation’s capital May 31-June 1 often had their “eyes washed out” with tears. Semander has spoken about the experience with a local Rotary Club and, upon returning to Houston, donated money to Honor Flight.
“I’m not a rich man,” he said, “but I wanted other veterans to be able to go on this trip.”
Lynda Harrison, the executive director of Honor Flight Houston, said the organization started in Ohio and has spread to other states. Houston’s Honor Flight Network has been active since 2013.
A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Harrison got involved though her sister, first as a volunteer on the flights and now as a scheduler.
“I was hooked,” Harrison said. “Everyone is a volunteer. There are no paid employees.”
Twice in the spring and twice in the fall, a group of veterans and volunteers fly out of Hobby Airport on Southwest Airlines and spend an action-packed few days in the nation’s capital. The next trip is scheduled for Sept. 27-28.
On Semander’s trip, the group traveled by bus with a police escort to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery as well as visit the World War II, Vietnam and Korean War memorials.
Veterans travel with a guardian. While some guardians are Honor Flight volunteers, Semander’s son, John Jr., accompanied him. The veterans have their trip covered while volunteers pay for theirs. The Southwest flights also carry their regular passengers on the same plane, and much attention is paid to the veterans – who also get a mail call on the flight with letters of love and gratitude. Semander got one from his grandson.
While some Honor Flight groups are comprised of veterans of a single war, like an upcoming flight of Vietnam veterans, Semander’s group was made up of veterans from WWII, Vietnam and Korea. Semander served in Korea from 1951-53 as an Army tank commander.
What made the trip so special to Semander was the kindness of volunteers and all the people along the way that thanked him and his fellow veterans for their service.
“The people of D.C. turned out in huge numbers and lined up for us as we rolled our wheelchairs,” Semander said. “It’s a trip that 22 of us veterans will never forget, until we leave this Earth. The beautiful part about this is they really want to get veterans to do this to thank them for their service before they pass away.”
Semander also got to share time with those who could relate to the realities of service to country. A man sitting in a wheelchair at the World War II memorial turned out to be none other than Purple Heart recipient Bob Dole, whose perseverance as a former senator is a large part of the reason there are war memorials.
“He sat there and thanked us for our service,” Semander said. “There were about 60 of us in line. When I got there, I knelt down beside him, I looked him straight in the eyes, and I said, ‘Mr. Dole, I thank you for your service. You came back not whole. I came back whole. So I wanted to thank you for your service.’ I looked him straight in the eyes, and he hugged me and thanked me for thanking him for his service.”
Harrison said that while all veterans are encouraged to apply, there is special priority given to World War II veterans and terminally ill veterans from all wars. She said that since the World War II memorial was built 60 years after the war, many who fought in that war have never visited it.
“We don’t want them to miss the chance to see it,” Harrison said.
Harrison said the Vietnam memorial also holds special sway over veterans of that war.
“It’s cathartic for them,” she said. “They’re overwhelmed.”
There are no corporate sponsors for Honor Flight Houston and Harrison said the registered 501(c)(3) depends on donations from the public to fulfill its mission. That’s why Semander felt compelled to make a donation soon after his trip.
“I would love to see all the veterans that need to go, go,” he said. “(Honor Flight) does all the heavy lifting. They give their time, treasure and everything to help veterans, to take veterans to D.C. to thank them for their service.”
There also are opportunities to greet the veterans on their return to Houston. For more information about Honor Flight Houston, visit www.honorflighthouston.org.