I’m at Starbuck’s almost every afternoon; it’s where I check my e-mail and Facebook, and do a little work on my websites and blogs. I would often see a guy there, sitting out on the large deck, reading the paper and occasionally talking on his phone; a tall, good looking guy with greying dark hair, an easy, engaging grin and an expansive friendliness to everyone, dressed in T-shirt, shorts and tennis shoes. You always knew if he was there because you couldn’t miss his red, racy sportscar out in the parking lot.
One day, several years ago, I saw he was looking at a guidebook to Turkey, and I asked him if he was planning a trip. It turned out he was getting together a group of people to go to Turkey on a group tour with Oddessey. As the years went by, I’d continue to see him there, and we’d usually exchange a few friendly words about our travel plans. One time he mentioned to me with great enthusiasm that he was taking a group of WWII veterans to the WWII memorial in Washington, DC., and how much it meant to them emotionally.
I was very impressed, and just recently I asked him if I could ask him a few questions about the project, for an article I wanted to include on my “hobby travel website, which maybe no one will never readXXXXXX”. I ended up talking for almost two hours to Rick, and I found every minute fascinating.
“When I first met you,” I said, “You were taking groups of Apache Junction residents to Turkey. How long did you do the Turkey trips, and what led you to start leading groups of people to different places? Are you a travel agent?”
He said that he was not a travel agent, in fact he had a masters in psychology. “It’s a long story, how I got started traveling,” he said.
“Go ahead, tell it!” I replied with enthusiasm. I’m always interested in the paths that lead different people to doing things that they love.
In California, after he completed his education at the University of San Francisco, he was in his twenties, and counseling with students at a youth guidance center in California. He lost that job because “Reagan closed everything down.” (Ronald Reagan was then governor of California) So he went back to retail, to the grocery store business, at a Bell Market on Market Street in San Francisco. which was where he’d worked to put himself through college. But every vacation, he’d take what money he had saved, and go travel in Europe, on his own.
There was a bank raffle which I entered, he told me, and I won the grand prize, which was a Princess Cruise to the Carribbean. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to go, and actually waited a couple of years before he used the ticket. And he loved the cruise.
He came back and told all his friends how much fun it was. He told coworkers and also people from his running club. (He still belongs to a running club). Hearing how much fun he’d had, coworkers and friends were bugging him to organize a group to go. It took him two years to work up the nerve to do it, but he finally booked a scond cruise with friends, to Mexico.
It was on this cruise that he became motivated to add a new activity to his life. As the band played in the ship’s dining room, he noticed a relatively young woman dancing with an eighty-year-old man. He remarked to the woman on the age of her dancing partner, and she said that younger men just don’t know how to dance any more.
“And that eighty-year-old man was a real good dancer,” he added. When he returned home he started ballroom dance classes.
All twenty-one people who went with him on that tour wanted to go again the next year. And he has traveled again every year with the same group, which grows larger every year through word of mouth. He has still continued to do organize these yearly trips even though he has come to spend so much time with the Veterans’ trips.
There was an alumni banquet at the USF, his alma mater. The year was 1984. He almost didn’t go, too tired or too busy. But an old school friend called and told him he better get up there, as his dinner was already paid for. So he went to the banquet. There was a raffle held at the banquet, three tickets for ten dollars, and he only had enough money for one ticket. He didn’t even know what the raffle was for.
He won again, a 20-day Odessey cruise to Australia. Doctors and lawyers were buying up armfuls of tickets, but Rick won.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said, “It must have been the Man upstairs.”
I asked him how he had gotten involved with the trips taking the WWII veterans. He said that a couple he knew in Gold Canyon did volunteer work for their Methodist church, and for some years they have had him do presentations at the Methodist church for Veteran’s Day event, an event that still goes on. They asked him if he wanted to go to a “Departure”, where organization members to to the airport and see the WWII Vets off as they leave on their trip.
“I went to the departure, and I was hooked,” Rick said. He said that the veterans have their own security, the TSA gives them a special area to go through, and they are first on the plane. All of the members of Honor Flight Arizona who attend stand in a line on the tarmac and salute, and the vets look out the windows of the plane and wave to them.a
No government money is used by the organization. Rick said that they started out “asking for change on the sidewalk”, but as the group’s project is becoming well-known, more and more money is coming in from corporate sponsors. Quicken Loan is a sponsor ($48,000 in the last few years, Boeing Corporation pays for twelve vets at a time to go. Each vet is accompanied by a guardian, and the guardians only pay $900 for their trip (which includes both flights, hotel accomodations). One lady in Gold Canyon has personally give $97,000 to the Honor Flight organizations. In addition, the VFW sponsor their own member-veterans to go, as do the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Sons of the American Revolution. And sometimes, relatives might get together to sponsor their own veteran.
“Are you retired?”
Rick said that he had been retired for fourteen years. The first two years were in California, but then he “escaped”. His whole family is here in Arizona now.
I told him that I was also originally from California, and I left because it was just too expensive.
I asked him how his organization finds the veterans. He said that they find them through the VFW, through the American Legion, and many just through word of mouth. He said that the best thing that happened to them for public relations was when the government shut down last year, and the WWII memorial was closed. The Honor Flight organization went on TV to protest the closure, “and boy did the telephone calls start coming in!”
A physician’s assistant started Honor Flight when the WWII Memorial was built in 1994, and he found out that 75% of veterans were already dead. The organization has grown steadily until now each state has a chapter.
The sad thing is that so many of the WWII veterans die before they get the chance to make the trip. The average age of the veterans they take is 92, and the oldest they have taken was 101 years old.
They take three medical personel on the trip, two doctors and a nurse. When the trip starts the medical personel make the statement to the veterans, “We are not your doctors and nurses.” They have to make this statement to legally protect themselves from liability. The medical personel all pay their own way.
There is a tremendous amount of logistics involved in these trips, but it all is run very well and goes like clockwork.
The guardians who accompany the veterans go through an extensive training program. The training program lasts a couple of hours. For instance, if one of the veterans has to go use the bathroom on the plane, two guardians must accompany that vet, one in front of them and one behind. The flight attendants are just wonderful with the vets; there’s a waiting list of flight attendants who want to work the flights which are flying Honor Flight vets.
Southwest airlines does all of the flights. They have also donated millions of dollars.
In the entire Honor Flight organization, the only staff who are paid are two secretaries who keep track of the books.
The closest airport to Washington DC is in Baltimore. Honor Flight Baltimore does an incredible job on the logistics once the WWII vets de-plane at that airport, using airport wheelchairs. Honor Flight Baltimore organizes the crowds, takes the vets to the luggage area. The vets and the guardians are given a good rate at the Baltimore Hilton, which keeps a whole room available just for all the wheelchairs. From Baltimore it’s a forty-five minute ride on a bus into Washington DC (the bus has a wheelchair lift for those who need it.)
Rick makes an hour-long DVD of the trip to give to everyone who goes. To learn how to make the DVD he took classes at the Apple Store. “You pay Apple $100 and you can take fifty classes, and all these classes are taught by experts,” he said. Honor Flight bought a DVD burner so that he can burn 7 of these DVDs at a time.
“I know from speaking to you before that these trips are very satisfying to you,” I said. “Can you elaborate?”
“Oh Good Lord! It’s the human contact with these guys who are so appreciative, and they did so much. One guy went through both Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. By coincidence it was this guy’s birthday at the time of the trip, and they had eight birthday parties for this guy, at the airport, at the hotel, at the memorial…..”.
One of the things that touched me the most, from all the different things Rick told me, was the emotional healing which the trip enabled, both for the veterans and for their families. Although we’ve all seen films of the huge ticker-tape parades in New York City for the returning veterans, most of the ones Rick talked to said that they did not get a welcome. That was the era when men were not encouraged to talk of personal problems, and many a World War II veteran whom Rick met had literally not talked to anyone of their war experience, not family or wife or close friends.
“This generation was known for not talking, but they get on this trip and they just start talking,” Rick said. “And the tears start rolling down their faces. It all comes out.” He said that I would not believe how many of the veteran’s families had come to him and said that their father or brother finally talked about what happened to them, and the families are so thankful that they finally understand why their father was the way he was.
Tears were coming to my eyes as Rick told me of the emotional healing which the Honor Flight trips brought these veterans.
Some of the stories were truly awful. One man had his leg blown off and the opposite arm blown off, when the Germans threw two hand grenades into the tank he and his mates were inside of. Then the Germans crawled into the tank, picked him up and shot him in the chest, then threw him in the snow to die. Somehow he survived.
Another vet, a real character by the name of Jack, had horrible memories from fighting in the Pacific. Against orders, he and his unit were so brutalized by the fighting that they did not take prisoners, they just started shooting all of the Japanese they encountered, even women and children. He had no choice, he had to go along with the rest.He had never told anyone, but carried it around in his mind ever since that war, until the trip to the Memorial when he started talking about his private horror.
The WWII veterans are in their late nineties, so I asked how much longer Honor Flight could continue to take them on these flights. I was kind of taken aback when Rick said that next year would probably be the last year that Honor Flight will be taking the WWII, they are just getting to old. Honor Flight Arizona will then have to make the decision whether to go on to the Korean War Vets and the Vietnam War vets, as some other chapters around the United States have done.
Honor Flight Arizona has yet to make that decision.
My eyes were moist as Rick finished telling me his fascinating story, and the story of Honor Flight Arizona. I had expected him to answer five or six questions and I’d end up with a short paragraph to round out my website. What a great story, both painful and wonderful; thanks, Rick, for taking the time to tell me all about it.
Rick’s generosity and enthusiasm in talking to me is not surprising when one looks back at his life. Whether organizing groups of his friends on fun travel trips, or pitching in to take a leadership role in the Honor Flight trips for Veterans, or taking tech classes so he could provide memory-filled DVDs for each veteran, I can see that every time he was presented with an idea or an opportunity, he took it and ran with it. He is a wonderful example of how a retired person can go on, after retirement, to play a valuable part in the lives of those around him.