It’s been 10 years since I had the conversation that changed my life, and eventually the lives of thousands of other people.
I was sitting alone with my 89-year-old dad at my parents’ house, and I asked him a hypothetical question. If you were on your deathbed at this moment, I said, what’s one thing you would say you wished you had done in your life? My dad looked back at me with no reservation and said he wished he could have seen the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
My dad fought in North Africa and Italy during World War II, and he was so proud to hear about the memorial when it opened in 2004. Unfortunately, he felt he wasn’t in good enough condition to make the trip to see it firsthand. I said that was ridiculous. We would find a way to make it happen. Less than a week later, my mom and I escorted him to D.C., where he was able to visit his memorial. As I watched my dad take in all the memorial had to offer, I couldn’t help but think, wouldn’t it be amazing to bring other veterans here, too?
Shortly after I returned home from that trip, three other women and I founded Honor Flight Chicago. We joined the national network of Honor Flight hubs and quickly began to plan our first flight with veterans to Washington, D.C. Since then, we’ve flown 75 flights and given 6,686 veterans their day of honor, more than any other hub in the national Honor Flight Network.
On Wednesday, April 12, Honor Flight Chicago will kick off its 10th year of honoring America’s senior war veterans. We have 17 World War II veterans and 92 Korean War veterans who will arrive at Midway International Airport at 4 a.m. to begin a day unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before.
Over the course of the next 17 hours, they will be treated like royalty as they are shuttled to our nation’s capital and back — at no cost to them. While in D.C., the veterans will tour the Korean War Memorial, World War II Memorial, Marine Corps Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, and more. But more importantly, everywhere they go that day, they will hear two words over and over again: Thank you.
Thank you for your service.
Thank you for your courage.
Thank you for being a hero.
At one recent school visit, a student asked me what exactly Honor Flight Chicago does. In that moment, I thought about that first trip to the World War II Memorial with my dad. I thought about the thousands of men and women whose lives have changed thanks to their experiences with Honor Flight Chicago. And then I told the young boy this:
We honor our veterans with an all-expense paid, one-of-a-kind journey to Washington, D.C. We thank them for their service and their sacrifices. We inspire generations of Americans to realize the power of gratitude and respect.
And in the process, we change lives.