“We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they walk by.”
— Will Rogers
MANCHESTER, NH – Honor Flight New England has been transporting war veterans to Washington, D.C., for 10 years. It’s a milestone that will be celebrated May 19 when the 10th Anniversary flight departs from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport Sunday morning, carrying 44 veterans – 9 WWII veterans, and the rest, veterans of the Korean War.
Organizers are hoping for a huge public send-off to cheer on those attending this trip of a lifetime. The bus is set to arrive at 8:15 a.m. All are invited.
The success of Honor Flight New England can be easily quantified in numbers, according to Joe Biron, who founded the New England chapter of a national initiative after discovering there were no flights available to East Coast veterans. Their inaugural flight on June 13, 2009 included 50 veterans – 14 prisoners of war and five veterans of World War II, including one who lost his sight while serving his country.
After Sunday’s flight, 2,013 “heroes” will have made the trip, says Biron, which represent some notable statistics:
- 80 female veterans
- 39 POWs
- 23 sets of brothers
- 8 husband-and-wife couples who both served
- A brother and sister who served during WWII
- A WWII veteran who signed up at age 14½ after forging his birth certificate
- The oldest: A 102-year-old veteran
- The youngest: A 31-year-old veteran of the Afghan war with serious medical issues
But the most important aspect of Honor Flight can’t be calculated in numbers, says Biron. After 10 years of round-trip flights to visit war memorials in the nation’s capital, Biron says the true meaning of the incredible journey is immeasurable.
And he suspects for all the thank-you letters and indelible moments that have unfolded in the past 10 years, the experience has meant the most to him.
“After 10 years, it’s still as moving for me as the first flight. They’re incredibly appreciative, and it’s a lesson in humility,” says Biron, a former Manchester police officer, and then state investigator who specialized in crimes against the elderly. He’s retired now, and is dedicated full time to the program. Says Biron, “They always say ‘we did what we had to do, but the real heroes didn’t come home’.” Biron might be tempted to argue that point but he doesn’t, out of respect.
And he doesn’t apologize for the emotion that rises easily and frequently in him as he talks about Honor Flight. He carries with him the weight of 2,000 war veterans, readily conjuring names and specifics of their service, all etched on his heart.
Honor Flight Network is a nationally-known non-profit founded in 2005 that was launched to make sure veterans of WWII had a chance to see the memorial in Washington, D.C., which wasn’t unveiled until 2004 – 60 years after the war ended – fraught with years of construction delays. Many died before ever having a chance to visit the memorial. Honor Flight was started to make sure every veteran who wanted to see it, no matter how old or ill or frail, could have a VIP experience, no charge.
Below, Honor Flight New England was invited to participate in a gathering of WWII veterans in Washington, D.C., in March of 2010, for the launch of the HBO premiere of “The Pacific.” Read more here.
The New England chapter is completely independent and relies solely on donations from supporters and corporate partners to do what they do – and it’s one of the few chapters that has continued its mission, even as the number of those who served in WWII dwindle.
“There are other organizations who’ve let it go after WWII. We are still going strong. We just want vets to know how we’ll never forget their service,” says Biron, who has been on every flight. Shifting the focus to Korean War veterans was a natural progression, and they are now accepting applications from Vietnam veterans, in anticipation of future flights honoring their service.
“We’re really feeling the urgency now,” says Biron, who recently sent out informational notices to 4,700 churches, seeking any WWII veterans who are still interested and able to make the trip. Their original slogan, “A Race Against Time,” has never resonated more.
Biron’s nostalgia for the humble roots of Honor Flight New England is permanently linked to a veteran named Jerry Hebert, the first veteran to sign up for an Honor Flight. Biron explains that he met Jerry during his second career, post-cop, with the state’s division of elderly services.
“I investigated crimes against seniors and would go to the mall to walk with them, to build rapport. I met Jerry, and he told me his story – it still makes me emotional,” Biron says, gathering himself enough to retell it.
“Jerry and his buddy, Spags, were involved in a battle, both of them were machine-gunners. Spags’ machine gun jammed and Jerry went over to unjam it. Spags took over Jerry’s machine gun and when Jerry returned, Spags had been killed,” Biron says. “Jerry could never get over it.”
Biron exhales like a pressure cooker valve, releasing some of the pain he lives with, by proxy. Their stories have become his stories. They are the reason he is so dedicated to Honor Flight’s mission.
“I can’t believe I still get emotional myself,” he smiles before continuing. “And so what happened after I heard his story, I was getting off a plane in Baltimore and saw a group of Honor Flight veterans also getting off a plane in Baltimore. It was incredible to see, but I didn’t know anything about it,” Biron says. “I called the national headquarters and asked about it. They didn’t have anyone here to organize it, so I did.”
Does he feel like it was meant to be?
“I read a thing once that said when you find your purpose – when you find your ‘why,’ it will make you cry. This is it,” he says, smiling through the strong sense of purpose welling up in his eyes.
It’s a simple idea that only works because of many moving parts and a core group of volunteers who have been with Biron since the start, including longtime Manchester Police Lt. Steve Mangone, Sheila Peters, now retired from the Manchester VA, and his daughter, Jamie Geller.
“It’s changed all of our lives in an incredibly great way,” Brion says.
He reaches for a letter that he keeps in a drawerful of thank-you notes, stashed for safe keeping.
“When we have guardian orientations, I try to relay to family members the importance of what this is. Of all the letters I have, this one, to me, says it all. It’s incredible, he says, reading it aloud:
Thank you so much for the opportunty to take my dad on the April 17th Honor Flight. He has had stage-four kidney disease for some time now. He was hospitalized over Christmas and was not doing great. We got word in January that he would be on the April Flight. My dad said, ‘Wow, I guess I have to stick around until April.’
He wanted to go on the flight so badly, and was so excited about it. We returned to the veteran’s home about 2 a.m. on April 18th. He had been up for almost 24-hours straight, no naps, did not even doze off once…
My dad went on hospice the following Monday, and passed away this morning, May 3rd – two weeks and one day after the flight. The staff at the veterans home thinks he was waiitng for his Honor Fight. I quickly made a scrap book when we got back and he was able to walk around with it for two days before he was bed-ridden, and unresponsive. You have given my dad and I the best gift we could ever have had. Thank you so much.
What began as a small but mighty effort on a shoestring budget has grown to include an office on Londonderry Turnpike with an office manager and lots of storage space. There Biron handles logistics and keeps track of those who’ve flown, and those who want to. He also proudly displays books penned by veterans recounting their war-time experiences, photos and other memorabilia gifted to him by veterans over the years.
During a tour of the space Biron points out that they now have room to store wheelchairs and walkers, which make it so much easier for veterans to get from buses to monuments. They also stockpile snacks to fortify the veterans during the long bus rides to and from the airport and while navigating the nation’s capital. Biron says it costs about $600 to fly a veteran, round-trip, on a commercial flight. Chartered flights cost about $85-90,000 to transport 60 veterans.
One of the most important aspects of flights is recruiting volunteer “guardians” who pay their own way and provide one-on-one help, “never more than an elbow away” from each veteran, for safety, and to make sure they have everything they need. Sometimes it’s a family member, but often they are simply volunteers who want to give back and, frequently, they are fellow veterans who wish to honor those who served before them.
Treating each and every veteran with the honor and respect they earned is essential, says Biron. He knows it has meant everything to a generation of warriors who did what was asked of them, a matter of duty and patriotism.
When these veterans are given the chance to fly to Washington to see the glorious memorial representing the 16 million men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces, they are humbled. When they stand in front of the Freedom Wall and run their frail fingers over the Field of Stars, representing the 400,000 who gave the ultimate sacrifice – their lives – they are in awe, finally able to acknowledge their own battle scars that never quite healed, and whisper a prayer for their brothers in arms, who never made it home.
Biron says it is the heartfelt appreciation and affection each veteran expresses that spurs him on.
“And it’s not much, compared to what they did for us. But it’s as simple as the Honor Flight hats and T-shirts we give them, or their jackets, and how much they’re really treasured by these heroes – even their name tags,” Biron says. He maintains relationships with as many of the veterans, post-flight, as he can, which includes visiting them in hospice, or attending funerals. In 10 years, the losses have been great. But for all the sorrow, satisfaction prevails. With every new Honor Flight comes new veterans, each with a unique story to share.
“We had a veteran in Hooksett – Frank – who had esophageal cancer. After he went on his own Honor Flight, he came out to the airport to every one of our return flights, no matter how late it was, to greet the returning veterans,” Biron says. “When we heard he was sick we went up to visit him and we gave him a little eight-by-eleven collage of his flight. When he left his house for the last time he took two things with him: the collage of his Honor Flight and his rosary beads.”
Biron can’t say much more than that – his smile, fixed, his eyes, full of purpose.
“It’s been such an incredible, life-changing gift.”
Honor Flight New England will be launching the first flight of 2019 from Manchester-Boston Regional Airport on May 19. The bus is scheduled to arrive at the airport at 8:15 a.m. and their flight returns at around 11:20 p.m. Anyone wishing to send them off or welcome them home is invited to just show up to wave a flag or bring a sign.
Donations in support of future Honor Flight can be made directly through Honor Flight New England’s website.