Last week, Honor Flight Chicago flew its 50th mission -- the 50th time they took a planeload of World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the WWII memorial.
Since 2008, Honor Flight Chicago, the biggest Honor Flight hub in the nation, has been giving World War II veterans the day of their lives. Thousands more come to cheer, assist, write letters of thanks and salute the vets for their service.
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The vets tell you it's an incredible experience, even though the day is long. They get to Midway Airport by 4:30 a.m., fly to Washington and spend the day touring the WWII, Korea and Vietnam memorials, and may get to the Iwo Jima monument and the Air and Space Museum. Along the way, they are entertained by a 1940s dance band, an Andrews Sisters trio and a brass band, and they get the handshakes of current military members.
They get back on the plane, where during the flight they are surprised by "mail call" -- letters from friends and family thanking them for their service.
And then, when they deplane at Midway at 10 p.m. or later, they are met by water cannons, Navy personnel and literally thousands in a cheering crowd.
The youngest World War II veteran is now about 86. The average age of the vets on the waiting list is 89. And while Honor Flight Chicago has taken 4,342 veterans to the nation's capital since 2008, approximately 20,000 in the Chicago area alone have not yet gone.
You probably have to actually be a World War II veteran to entirely appreciate what it means, more than a half-century after your service, to be that soldier -- or airman or sailor -- again. To revisit your younger self. To be able to talk about your experience with people who understand exactly what you are talking about; or not talk about it at all, because all you have to say is "Midway" or "France" or "North Africa" or "Pearl" -- or a thousand other sites -- and they understand.
Honor Flight Chicago wants as many vets as possible to go while they still can. And when they have flown their last WWII veteran, they will turn their attention to veterans of the Korean War.
Honor Flight President Jody Kopsky says the point in all this is to make these veterans feel the appreciation and regard, in a tangible way, that most of us have for them.
Kopsky has talked to a lot of veterans, and she says most of them tell her they got no "welcome home" at all.
"When they got home they got off the subway and went to their mom's house," said Kopsky, whose own father was in the Philippines with the U.S. Navy. "As far as I'm concerned, they saved the world."
As far as we're concerned, Honor Flight Chicago and their hundreds of volunteers are giving these veterans a great gift, that in the twilight of their lives they know their service will not be forgotten.