HonorAir Flies Again! - TribPapers
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HonorAir Flies Again!

WWII, Korean, and Vietnam veterans being honored in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Photo submitted.

Asheville – All gave some, some gave All. Yet many of our veterans feel discouraged and forgotten. The suicide rate among veterans nears 20 per day. Unlike the heroes of WWII, who came home to fanfares and parades celebrating the end of the war, service members in later conflicts came home with no fanfare or celebration. Many were met by demonstrators at airports. But there is help and hope. The HonorAir program, which became Blue Ridge Honor Flight, is attempting to give these veterans the honor, peace, and closure they deserve. 

Jeff Miller founded the HonorAir program in 2006. The son of a World War II Veteran and nephew of a B-24 bomber pilot who died in the war, Miller had a vision, to send every World War II Veteran in Henderson County to their memorial in Washington, D.C. before their passing. Miller, along with a board of directors and many volunteers, is still bringing veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War conflict, to their memorials in our nation’s capital. Due to covid restrictions, the flight going on April 23rd will be the first since 2019.

Many have not heard of these honor flights, or that they originated in Henderson County and eventually spread across the country. Each Blue Ridge flight takes approximately 100 veterans (ages ranging from the mid-70s up to 102), along with their escorts (called guardians), medical personnel, and counselors.

Some vets described their experience, as “Gratitude, incredible overwhelming gratitude. I thank them from the heart. This is the best thing that has ever happened to me. It was one of the greatest honors I’ve ever experienced.” Many of these vets never expected the received outpouring of love, support, and respect. “For those who felt forgotten, it was a profound moment of healing.”

JoAnn Naeger, a member of the Blue Ridge Honor Flight (BRHF) team, went on a flight as a guardian and was hooked. She’s been with them ever since. Naeger said, “We have a day to honor these men and women, and a welcome home for our veterans who were never welcomed. In this flight we have two World War II vets, ages 95 and 96, as well as Korean War and Vietnam war veterans. And we are so lucky to have AdventHealth as a corporate sponsor this year.”

AdventHealth Foundation of Hendersonville held a big gala in 2019 called Celebrate the Heroes of the Red, White, and Blue. Victoria Dunkle, Communications Director for Advent and former news anchor for News13, shared, “The Blue Ridge Honor Flight has the ability to celebrate, honor, and recognize what it truly took for each of these people to give up their lives. They may not have lost their lives on the battlefield, but they gave up their lives for a time, to serve our country. They put their lives on hold. They put so much on the line for us, and AdventHealth is just thrilled with the opportunity to make this happen for more people in our community. It just made good sense to dedicate one of our gala fundraising efforts to support this effort. We have so many members on our team who are veterans themselves, many of whom will be guardians on this flight, or have loved ones who are veterans. It made sense for us to do something that is so powerful and impactful for a veteran’s life.” 

Dunkle knows just how impactful this honor is. Her father, a Vietnam vet, was aboard on one of these trips and told her it was a game-changer. One of the most poignant moments was seeing how the men and women who served in Vietnam came back so profoundly impacted from seeing people stand up with a placard that said “Welcome Home,” or “We Salute You.” It’s a moment when some of these vets, who never received the heroes’ welcome they so richly deserved, at long last got that moment. “We are doing our best to make something that was very wrong, right,” said Dunkle.  

Once the attendees of the gala realized that the cause was raising money for veterans to have this opportunity, the paddles for their fundraiser just went up. Dunkle said, “It was so wonderful! We were able to raise enough to cover the cost of a flight, around $50k.” Then COVID-19 hit and flights were stopped, but the money was still there for this first flight post COVID. 

Kim Williams, a nurse for AdventHealth and an Air Force veteran, will be a guardian for two of the veterans. Nearly half of the escorts on this flight are vets helping other vets. Williams has never been to D.C., and is so excited about this opportunity. She shared, “We will meet at the airport at 6 am. There will be fellowship and breakfast for the veterans while they are checking in, then it’s wheels up at 8:15.” Once in D.C. the guardians will escort the honored soldiers to the different memorials where they will be lauded with an honor guard and other formal presentations. Then the vets will be taken to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a wreath presentation.

Each flight’s return reception is different, but Williams related that, “There will be drums and bagpipes, scouts, ROTC, banner flying, and a huge turnout to greet them at the airport, showering them with love and applause, and thanking them for everything they did—finally getting the reception they deserve.” 

Even World War II vets, considered quote-on-quote the greatest generation, have come under attack by folks who want to rewrite our history. These young men, boys in fact, didn’t have a choice, they were drafted and answered the call to stop the fascistic evil that was spreading across Europe. Even if they were lucky enough to come home, they were changed for life, as were their families. The emotional and physical scars do not only affect the veteran. Of these men, Williams stated, “Everything we have today we owe to them, even the right to disparage them.” 

This is the same message that has been spoken by so many, including Victoria Dunkle, who recently surprised her father by telling him she will be his guardian on this flight. He told her, “You’re going to come home, and your life will never be the same!” Dunkle responded, “Really, I’m going to be changed that much?” His response profoundly distilled simply as, “Yes. It’s life changing for the veterans, but it’s also life changing for the guardians.” 

If you are a veteran who would like to have this experience or a person who would like to help BRHF, attend the homecoming celebration at the airport, become a guardian or support person for future flights (2 more this year alone), or make donations to help this cause, you can go to www.blueridgehonorflight.com for more information. 

Special free parking will be available, with shuttle service to the airport, at gate 7 of the WNC Ag Center (the fair entrance) for anyone who wishes to attend the homecoming celebration. Anyone interested needs to arrive by 7:30pm to be ready for the arrival of the plane at 8:30.

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