They Fight. She Takes Flight.

They wake up long before sunrise, and greet the new day at 4 a.m.  

Fumbling in the dark, they grab their keys, their wallets, their service hats. They greet their local TSA officers at airport security before the morning rush starts, and board their planes.  

These men are veterans, and they are about to take the flight of their post-war lives.  

With the help of volunteers like AFGE Local 1020 member Kathleen Gibson's, they fly to Washington DC - many for the first time - to see the monuments dedicated to their military service. 

"So many of them have never been here," Gibson said. "They've never been able to see what has been dedicated to them - Korean, WWII, even the Vietnam vets, there are so many that have never seen the Vietnam Memorial either - and I think they all deserve that praise and thank you for their service." 

Gibson is one of the dozens of volunteers across the country helping to organize and escort veterans on what are called "Honor Flights." Honor flights are free trips to Washington, D.C., for veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and sometimes the Vietnam War. The trips include a tour of the monuments and end with the changing of the guard at Arlington Cemetery.  

Honor flights are both are an expression of gratitude for veterans' service, but also a time of solemn remembrance for these veterans to honor their brothers that gave it all. 

To participate, the veterans must designate a companion or guardian to join them. When they don't have one, a list of volunteers like Gibson pays out of pocket to step up and join them.  

"The volunteers have to fill out a form just like the veterans do to be accepted onto the flight, and it costs $400," Gibson said. "Everything is free to the veteran, but the guardians pay $400."  

Gibson found out about the program through one of her patient's daughters at the West Lafayette VA Outpatient Clinic, where she works as a registered nurse practitioner. Since learning about the program, she has convinced almost all of her World War II patients to attend and is now working to ensure that her Korean War veteran patients also take the trip. 

"Every time is special because they're such a special group of people," she said. "There's just so many stories, I don't even know where to start." 

The trips are often meaningful and emotional experiences for the veterans, many of whom are elderly or ill. Gibson said that some of her patients have not stopped talking about the trip since, saying it was such a wonderful experience. 

"We had a veteran from our clinic that we were really close to, and he went on the trip with us and unfortunately passed about a month later," she said. "He was buried in his t-shirt from our flight. He told his wife he wanted to be buried in that. Several people have told me that it was the best day of their life." 

Aside from her work at the VA and volunteer work escorting veterans on honor flights, she comes from a military family herself. Her father and brother served in the Army and Navy. She would have served in the Army, too, except for one small change of plans. 

"I was actually enrolled to join the service when I was younger, and I had already taken my physicals and was sworn in and everything, and I was supposed to leave," she laughed. "And I became pregnant with my oldest son. So I decided not to go, of course. I was given an honorable discharge, but I never served a day." 

Instead, she serves in her own way: by ensuring that our nation's heroes feel appreciated, even if that appreciation is a little belated. 

"It's something I enjoy doing, and I think they deserve all this recognition that they maybe didn't get earlier when they came home."


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