Almost 10 years ago, Bob Doherty was watching the evening news and saw a segment about an organization, Honor Flight, that takes veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit war memorials. Inspired to contribute, Doherty, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, placed a call and asked how he could help or where he could send donations. The voice on the other end of the phone had a better idea, though. Honor Flight was still a young organization and did not yet have a hub established in Virginia. Instead of volunteering, why didn’t Doherty just start a new hub and take Virginia veterans to the memorials himself, they asked.
It took a Doherty a couple of years and some deliberation, but in December 2008 he received the first donation, a check for $100, to the newly established Virginia hub. Honor Flight Historic Triangle Virginia made their first trip, called Mission 1, in May 2009, taking 94 World War II veterans to the memorials.
“I just wanted to help out a little, maybe volunteer on a trip,” Doherty says, smiling at the thought. “But instead, I got my own organization.”
Since its inception, the Virginia hub has taken just over 1,300 veterans to see the memorials dedicated in their honor. The organization makes the commemorative trip twice a year—once in the spring, once in the fall. In October, almost 60 veterans participated in Mission 16. For veterans, the trip is completely free of cost. To thank them for their service, they’re treated like the heroes they are. Traveling on chartered busses for almost 19 hours, they’re fed three meals and countless snacks. At each stop, the veterans are welcomed and sent off by service members, high school ROTC chapters and members of the World Veterans Federation. They’re even given a police escort from the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia to the nation’s capital. Honor Flight puts forth every effort to salute their guests.
Around 16 million men and women served in the United States armed forces during WWII, but it was almost 50 years later that the memorial was built.
“The estimate was that by the time the WWII memorial was dedicated, 75 percent of those veterans had already passed away,” says Matt Hartman, director of the Virginia hub. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 640 WWII veterans die each day. Hartman recognizes that the organization is quickly running out of time and says that because of the dwindling demographic, the hub has now opened the trip to include Vietnam and Korean war veterans and those that served in between.
What makes the day-long event so special, Hartman says, is that it gives the veterans the ability to meet others that served with them and can relate to the things they saw and experienced. “Many of these veterans don’t talk about their experiences with their families. They’ve been carrying a kind of burden around with them for almost 70 years,” Hartman says. “One of the earliest trips we made, we had a veteran just completely break down at the memorial. The trip can be a kind of cleansing for them.”
“There’s a reason the word history is spelled the way it is. It’s not all dead guys and dates; it’s stories,” says April Maletz, the assistant director and retired U.S. Navy Reservist. “On these trips, there are so many stories being told.” The chatter between the veterans and volunteers begins at 4:30 a.m. and continues all day. Some recount their experiences while others listen, nodding their heads.
On June 6, 1944, commonly known as D-Day, allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy to fight off German forces that had invaded northwestern Europe. Over, 10,000 allied service members died on the beaches that day. Julius Shoulars, a member of the 7th Beach Battalion in the U.S. Navy, was there.
At the age of 19, Shoulars received his draft letter just after he graduated from Maury High School in Norfolk. He went to Richmond to be evaluated and just happened to arrive when the Navy was looking for 30 volunteers. “I raised my hand quickly. The Army has you crawling on the ground on your stomach, you eat K-rations and never know where you’re gonna sleep,” Shoulars says. “In the Navy, you got three meals a day, a hot shower and a place to sleep.”
Shoulars had no way of knowing that in just over a year, he’d be part of the largest seaborne invasion in history. He was in the eighth wave of sailors sent to Normandy’s shore. “On June 4, they took us out of the staging area into England’s ports and loaded us onto the ships. The next day, they wouldn’t let us get off the ship. We had to stay on,” Shoulars says. “On June 6, we decided to go in. We unloaded in small boats, called LCVB boats. Orders would come in, and then we’d all line up and get on the boats headed for the beach. Needless to say, all hell broke loose. There was 450 people in our outfit, but we only lost 13. I didn’t get a scratch.”
While touring the WWII memorial, Shoulars is stopped dozens of times by visitors. He is thanked for his service by people of all ages from all over the globe, some with tears in their eyes. He’s asked to take photos with groups of young kids, which make Shoulars grin so big that his eyes squint a little. For those that ask, he shares a part of his story with them. There’s several moments where Julius goes quiet and looks off into the distance. It’s hard to say what he’s thinking about—whether it’s some detail that he’s left out because it is too much to share.
This isn’t his first visit to the memorial, though. A few years ago, Shoulars was invited to the memorial and given a Croix de Guerre, meaning “cross of war,” from France for his service.
“He didn’t talk about this stuff when we were younger,” says his daughter Terrie Combs. “It wasn’t until he started visiting people he served with that he opened up. And, of course, on trips like this he will talk more.”
Marilyn Snider, born and raised in New York, also served in WWII. She’s the only woman on Mission 16. When she was 19 years old, she joined the Women’s Army Corps. “I was trained as a surgery tech. They had me working with amputees and paraplegics,” Snider says. “I was so young, and I had no idea that I would be doing that. What I saw at the hospital, it left a tremendous impression on me.”
Later in the day, the veterans are given a dinner and small ceremony by the Knights of Columbus in Arlington. Along the entry way, children and several young Girl Scouts line the walkway and greet the veterans as they make their way into the dining hall for chow call. When Snider passes through, the Girl Scouts wave their flags a little more enthusiastically and shout their thanks as Snider claps her hands together, overjoyed at their presence.
“The enthusiasm, the reception that they gave us—it just made me feel embarrassed almost. It’s overwhelming,” Snider says, smiling. “I’m incredibly grateful. They were applauding me. I didn’t realize I was the only woman veteran here. It’s been very comforting.”
Honor Flight not only honors those veterans that are able to make the trip but also those that passed away before the memorials were built. Through a program called “Flags of Our Heroes,” Honor Flight symbolically brings deceased veterans along on the therapeutic journey.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Wilson Wright holds a framed photo of himself with his twin brother, Richard, both men dressed in their service uniforms. They each served in the Marine Corps during the war. Richard passed away from complications from a brain tumor, which is thought to have occurred because of his interaction with the chemical Agent Orange during the war. Matt Hartman’s son Jason kneels next to Wright, holding a framed flag in honor of Richard, while Wright sits silently next to the wall where more than 58,000 names are remembered.
When the buses make their way through Arlington National Cemetery, one veteran, gazing over the seemingly endless rows of white headstones, says reflectively, “Every single stone out there is an untold story.”
As the day wears on, the veterans seem to shed some of the heavy weight they have likely carried with them over the years by sharing their stories. “That’s why we do this,” Doherty says. “For a little bit of time, it brings the veterans back. They get that youthfulness, their spirit, back. And it’s why we’ll keep doing this.”
If you or a veteran in your life would like to participate in Honor Flight, visit HonorFlightHTVA.org for information on their upcoming Mission 17 in April 2017.