Jim McLaughlin, the organization’s board chairman, said that the first-class greeting the veterans received at Dulles, Reagan and Baltimore-Washington airports was “astounding.”
“People will come five gates down to participate in the welcoming,” McLaughlin said to ABC News. “It’s extremely emotional. Veterans are shocked when they get to the airport.”
Since 2005, the Honor Flight Network has flown World War II veterans, and veterans diagnosed with terminal illnesses, to Washington to see the monuments to the wars in which they fought. The flights are free to the veterans.
In 2005, the group took 137 veterans. In ’06, that number grew to 891. And last year, the group flew more than 81,300 veterans. McLaughlin said the network hoped to fly 25,000 this year to reach a total of 1 million.
The network, which has its headquarters in Springfield, Ohio, now has 117 hubs and covers 40 states. The organization is staffed by volunteers and is financed by donations.
“I can’t tell you how often I cried when I saw the memorial, especially the one on Iwo Jima,” said Harvey Kurz, 87, of Grafton, Wis. “It was very exciting. My son took a lot of pictures. I met a lot of veterans.”
Kurz, a World War II veteran, was 19 and in the Navy when he watched the flag get raised at Iwo Jima from Landing Ship Medium No. 241. In November 2008, he was among 88 veterans on the first honor flight from the Stars and Stripes hub in Port Washington, Wis.
“[At General Mitchell International Airport near Milwaukee,] there were schoolchildren singing patriotic songs and a band. So exciting,” Kurz told ABC News. “When we landed in Washington … the fire department gave us a water salute with the big hoses. The police had an escort for us.”
He said thousands and thousands of people turned out to welcome the veterans back to Wisconsin.
“My God, you wouldn’t believe it,” Kurz said. “So many there with ‘Welcome Back’ signs.”
A veteran can take the one-day trip once and McLaughlin said that as the number of World War II veterans dwindled, the network was phasing in Korean and Vietnam veterans.
McLaughlin said the group was able to fly veterans at no charge thanks to discount rates from charter airlines and free commercial flights with Southwest.
“With a few exceptions like Southwest and others, by far the bulk of the money comes from the man on the street,” McLaughlin said. “He sits down and writes a check. There is no government funding. We’ve never requested funding and really don’t intend to.”
Clay Broga, who produced the documentary “Honor Flight” with director Dan Hayes, spent two years following the Stars and Stripes chapter, and said it was a powerful experience.
“You expect that it’s just this trip to the memorial [but] all day long, there are surprises,” Broga told ABC News. “And to see the transformation that it has on these veterans — they come to life. It’s just amazing.”