Big Sky Honor Flight to transport World War II veterans to nation's capital

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

Nearly 100 World War II veterans will travel at no cost to Washington, D.C., in April to visit “their” World War II Memorial on the inaugural journey of Big Sky Honor Flight.

A Montana chapter of the Honor Flight Network was activated Wednesday to honor the state’s World War II veterans. Plans to launch a state chapter have been in the works for two years.

Some 16.1 Americans served in military uniform during World War II. The youngest of those veterans still living are now in their mid-80s. There are 18,000 World War II veterans in Montana. Based on 2008 statistics, World War II veterans are dying nationally at the rate of about 1,000 per day.

“They won’t be around much longer,” said Ed Saunders, a member of the Big Sky Honor Flight’s board of directors.

The purpose of Big Sky Honor Flight is to fulfill the dreams of these senior veterans and transport them to the nation’s capital free of charge. The chartered flight will cost about $150,000 and will be paid for with donations.

To date, 67,000 veterans have traveled to the capital to see the World War II Memorial that was erected in their honor and dedicated in May 2004. Thirty-three states now have the Honor Flight program.

“They gave so much,” said Bill Kennedy, a Yellowstone County commissioner and member of the Big Sky Honor Flight board of directors. “Now is our opportunity in the state of Montana to get them to Washington, D.C., to see the memorial.”

The Honor Flight Network program was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician assistant with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Ohio, retired Air Force captain and private pilot. Morse wanted to honor the veterans he had taken care of for nearly three decades. Many did not have the financial wherewithal, strength or stamina to go, so Morse decided to help.

As the interest swelled, Morse enlisted help from other private pilots. Word spread, more veterans wanted to participate, and the Honor Flight Network was born.

Jack Engleman, a World War II veteran, traveled to see the memorial with the North Dakota Honor Flight. “It was a trip that I will never forget, very humbling,” Engleman said.

Engleman and Herb Livingston, a World War II veteran, were both on hand for Wednesday’s announcement. Livingston traveled to see the memorial on his own dime, saying it was worth it. “To me, it’s the best memorial in years in Washington, D.C.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., an ardent supporter of veterans and veteran issues, could not attend the kickoff announcement but sent his support in a letter read by Vicky Stephens, lead veterans’ caseworker for Tester.

Montana has always had a proud tradition of military service — both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and now our current wars, Tester said. “Part of living up to the promises we make our men and women when they enlist is that we’ll honor their service when they return home. And Honor Flight is doing just that.”

The plan is to take a group of veterans to the Memorial every April until every World War II veteran in Montana has made the trip. The North Dakota Honor Flight has made 11 trips to the Memorial.

“For some these people, it will be the last big trip of their lifetime,” Kennedy said. “Time is of the essence.”