Honor Flights have been a huge success

With a military precision befitting their mission, volunteer organizers of the Brushy Creek Honor Flights have virtually every minute of a 19-hour day accounted for when they transport their precious cargo of area veterans to view national landmarks in Washington, D.C.

They’ve done it 14 times since the first flight in May 2010, carrying a total of about 1,900 veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam from Fort Dodge Regional Airport to Dulles International Airport, where waiting buses take them on a daylong journey to view the national memorials dedicated to their wars as well as other landmarks in the nation’s capitol.

What a day it is, seared in the memories of all the veterans and their families who are fortunate enough to experience it. And there may be no other event in Fort Dodge that bonds the community like the Honor Flights do.

For veterans chosen for the flight, the day begins at 5 a.m. with check-in at the airport hangar. The 150 veterans clear security and board a Boeing 737 operated by Sun Country Airlines, with Fort Dodge firemen carrying those needing help up the stairway to their seats. Wheels up at 6:20 for the two-hour flight to Dulles International Airport where the plane taxis to the terminal. Lines of 500 to 600 greeters in the terminal applauding and shaking their hands as they move to the buses that take them to downtown Washington, escorted by motorcycle police with sirens blaring. Stops at the World War II, Korea and Vietnam memorials. Box lunches served on the buses while they tour the city. Stops at Arlington National Cemetery in time for the Changing of the Guard, and at the Iwo Jima Marine Corps monument and the new Air Force Memorial. Mail call during the return flight to Fort Dodge where each veteran receives notes of gratitude for his or her service. Arrival in Fort Dodge at 10:30 p.m. where 500 to 700 friends and family greet them, along with a band from Iowa Central Community College. And home with memories to last a lifetime.

A tried and true formula, but subject from time to time to improvements, noted Charles Walker, a Fort Dodge attorney who as a member of the original Brushy Creek board has traveled on all but one of the Honor Flights:

“Mail call has always been one of the flights’ most popular and moving features. We used to remind the veterans on the plane that when they served, they looked forward to two things — pay day and mail call — and that while we were not going to have a pay day on the flight, we would have mail call. But then, three flights ago, we found someone who donated Payday candy bars, the salted nut roll candy. And now we can say the veterans get both Payday and mail call.”

Curt Martins, a Callender resident who served as a Navy Seabee in Vietnam, said the police escort for the Honor Flight buses and the greetings he and fellow veterans received in Washington from “people of all walks of life” are memories lodged forever in his mind. “The showing of thoughtfulness was overwhelming. We were treated like royalty the whole trip.”

When the first Honor Flight was planned, organizers hoped they could raise enough money for at least one flight. Not only did they raise the needed $100,000, Brushy Creek director Ron Newsum recalled, but they set the tone for the 14 flights that have followed. Veterans who have taken the flights include, roughly, 925 from the Army, 400 from the Navy, 250 from the Air Force, 250 from the Marine Corps and 25 from the Coast Guard.

Those first flights took only World War II veterans, but in 2013 expanded to include Korean War veterans and in 2015 to include Vietnam War veterans.

“I have been a volunteer all of my adult life for one project or another,” Newsum said. “The Honor Flight has been the most rewarding project I have been involved with. Each flight has been a ‘reward.’

“Veterans expect to see their memorials along with Arlington Cemetery and the changing of the guard. They do not expect the 500 to 700 Washington volunteers who greet them at Dulles Airport, nor the 500 to 700 people who greet them upon their return to Fort Dodge later that evening. I’m proud to have been a part of ‘Honoring’ those veterans who have given us the freedoms we have today, and I am looking forward to future flights.”

Dr. Paul Brown, 94, a World War II and Korean War veteran, took the Honor Flight several years ago and said “it was the best-planned and administered trip I have ever taken. Every moment was filled with something. I was amazed by the World War II monument — I had heard some criticism about it, but I thought it was magnificently planned and carried out to highlight the activities of all the armed services.”

The homecoming at the Fort Dodge airport stands out in the mind of Brown, who was a family practice physician in Maquoketa for 40 years before moving to Fort Dodge. “When we arrived back in Fort Dodge, there were a thousand people waiting for us.”

Jerry Thoma, who served two tours of Vietnam in 1966-67 with the Navy’s swift boats unit, was among the Vietnam veterans who took an Honor Flight in 2016. Thoma, a retired chief deputy with the Webster County Sheriff’s Department, said that “everything was well-organized every minute of our trip, from the people who met us at the airport in Washington to the crowd here at home who had to wait for an extra hour and half delay for our return arrival.

“The Vietnam wall was truly humbling. The visit to Arlington Cemetery and the Changing of the Guard were awesome.  My wife said I didn’t stop talking about the trip for two days. Every chance I get, I talk to other vets to take the trip and some have thanked me for talking them into it. I will be forever grateful for the chance to go. My personal emotions will be forever changed after participating in this trip.”

Beyond the moving experience of the veterans themselves are their families, some of whom served as “guardians” assigned to each veteran and others who awaited their loved one’s arrival in Washington or back in Fort Dodge.

“Our whole family, children and their spouses were waiting in D.C. for the Brushy Creek Honor Flight to arrive,” recalled Barb Nolan Anderson of Shakopee, Minnesota, whose father, Gene Nolan, a World War II veteran, was on the first Honor Flight, accompanied on the flight by his son, John, and his granddaughter, Angela.

“The Honor Flight gave our family the opportunity to join others in honoring the men and women who served our great country so selflessly,” she said. “I think we all have had those times when ‘thank you just isn’t enough’ and when no matter how hard you try, the right words just won’t come.

“This is how I feel when I try to describe how grateful and thankful I am to Ron Newsum and the entire team of organizers for making the Honor Flights a reality. Clearly, it was Ron’s strong sense of leadership, focus to detail and commitment to excellence that provided the framework for a day that appeared seamless in its ability to meet the needs of the World War II Vets. Our family carries in our heart the precious memories of that day and how wonderful it was to share it together as a family.  It is a time that we will always hold dear and cherish.”

Newsum, who accompanied his own World War II veteran father to Washington on that first flight on May 1, 2010, is quick to point out that the flights would not be possible without the “team effort” of dedicated volunteers, who include: Barb Schulze and Darrell and Phyllis Koester, responsible for all of the homecomings in Fort Dodge; Rhonda Chambers, Fort Dodge Regional Airport manager, who makes arrangements for the charter flights; Charles Walker and wife, Mary Lou, who, along with his staff, determine which veterans are eligible to go on the next flight; Lee Bailey, who makes all the arrangements for hats/shirts and helps Orene Cressler with the unloading of the veterans assigned to wheelchairs; Mel Schroeder, treasurer, who with Craig Malloy are in charge of loading the supplies needed on the aircraft the morning of the flight; Marlene Welander, Russ Naden, Walker and Malloy, who act as motor coach captains to make sure all the veterans get the needed wheelchairs, water, etc. while on the tour; Welander, Peggy Dettmann and Julie Reed, who make sure the loading/unloading of the aircraft go smoothly.

When the veterans have been notified of their invitation on the trip, all of the board members call veterans’ family members to arrange for the “mail call.”

Four of the first board of directors of Brushy Creek Honor Flight continue on today: Newsum, Schroeder, Walker and Naden. Others on that original board were Mike Kopp, Tom Dorsey and the late Dan Payne.

Albert Habhab, a World War II veteran and former Fort Dodge mayor and judge, was on an early Honor Flight and gives “special thanks to those who not only conceived the idea but also gave of their time, talent and personal funds to make it a reality. “My travels have taken me to distances far removed from Fort Dodge and I have never met men and women more determined and dedicated than this group to make a dream a reality.”

Schroeder said a reward for all the work “was to see the expressions on the faces of the veterans as they were greeted by hundreds of people of all ages as they arrived at the Dulles Airport. Several of the veterans — especially those who served during the Vietnam War — commented they didn’t get a warm reception when they came home. As the veterans toured the monuments erected in their honor, they were often stopped by complete strangers who greeted them and thanked them for their service.”

Each flight costs about $100,000 to accomplish. Newsum said that Brushy Creek has not had any corporate sponsors, but has received “several nice corporate donations. We have relied totally on the good will of many, many people and organizations. To date we have not had to ‘beg’ for dollars.”

When the flight was first organized, the intent was to take veterans from Webster County and its surrounding counties, Newsum said, but in short order organizers received applications from beyond those county lines so the board made the decision not to penalize veterans because they did not live in the “right” county. The Brushy Creek flights have carried veterans from 51 counties and 160 communities.

Walker said “people at The Messenger have been great” in publicizing the flights and in honoring the veterans aboard each flight with pictures of each in a special section that is published just before each flight. The newspaper also sends a reporter with each flight.

Two Brushy Creek Honor Flights are scheduled for 2018 — the first on May 12 and the second on Sept. 15 — and there are tentative plans for a flight in May of 2019.

“We have enough applications for the next three, maybe even more,” said Walker, a Vietnam veteran who noted there are several World War II veterans who have applied. “As long as we have veterans who want to go, we will keep raising the money and get it done.”