Earl Morse was working as a physician assistant in 2004 at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical clinic in Springfield, Ohio, when he asked a simple question that changed his life. Morse asked one of his patients, 78-year-old World War II veteran Leonard Loy, whether he’d thought about visiting the National World War II Memorial, which recently had opened in Washington, D.C.
Loy shook his head sadly. “Mama’s been sick and we don’t have the money,” he said. “And we don’t have any way to get out there.”
Morse, himself a licensed pilot and former U.S. Air Force captain, had just rented a private Cessna plane and was going to fly his father, a Vietnam War veteran, to the nation’s capital to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He had an idea, a casual invitation that didn’t seem like such a big deal at the time. “My dad and I are renting a plane,” he told Loy. “If you’d like to go, it won’t cost you a penny.”
Loy didn’t say anything, but the tears in his eyes spoke volumes.
“That’s when it hit me, ‘This means more than I thought,’” says Morse, 48.
In the months that followed, Morse’s casual invitation to help a fellow military veteran turned into a nationwide quest. For more than two years now, he’s been flying World War II veterans to see the memorial erected in their honor on the National Mall. Since founding his nonprofit Honor Flight Network in 2005, he has taken more than 1,000 veterans from around the country to the memorial—and it hasn’t cost any of them one red cent.
“I’ve had a lot of veterans tell me this trip was the greatest day of their life,” Morse says.
A grassroots effort
After that first trip in the Cessna with his father and Loy, Morse enlisted the help of some pilot friends in Dayton, Ohio, and organized more day trips. The grassroots effort grew as word spread and donations increased, and Morse soon was purchasing blocks of tickets on commercial flights for larger groups, and coordinating flights from across the country.
“So far, we’re in 11 states,” says Honor Flight’s director of operations, Al Bailey, 60. “Setting up Honor Flight hubs will help us reach our goal.”
That goal is to ensure that all living World War II veterans get a chance to see the memorial that was erected to honor their service and sacrifice.
Morse remembers a call going out in the late 1990s for World War I veterans in the central Ohio area to give them special-recognition medals. Only two were located, and the thought of “too little, too late” stays with Morse to this day. “I didn’t want World War II vets to not be able to see America’s thank-you to their service,” he says.
Honor Flight is volunteer-staffed and donation-funded. Morse gave up his Veterans Affairs job and now works part-time at a medical clinic in Enon, Ohio. He devotes at least four days a week to Honor Flight and is the program’s only paid employee. His wife, Clarice, as well as his mother, father, brother, sister and sister-in-law, are among the 15 volunteers who help operate the national network, based in Dayton.
Honor Flight coordinates dozens of flights each year from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New York, North Dakota (which also represents South Dakota and Minnesota), North Carolina, Ohio and Utah. “We have 30 to 50 applicants per day from veterans as far away as Alaska,” Bailey says.
An unforgettable experience
On an Honor Flight trip, every expense is covered, including meals, ground transportation, and oxygen tanks and motorized wheelchairs for veterans who need them. Volunteers pay for their own tickets, and each flight has a medical attendant.
Natalie Kindt, 34, of Atlanta, volunteered on a flight and it was an experience she’ll never forget. “Now I’ll never pass another veteran without saying thank you,” she says.
Morse steadfastly refuses all offers from veterans who ask if they can help pay their way, which typically costs several hundred dollars. “They’ve done enough already,” he says.
“When we arrived at the airport, we didn’t even have to buy our breakfast,” says Dayton resident Jim Eby, 85, a World War II pilot who took a flight with his brother Harold, 92, also a veteran, this spring. “They gave us a sack of food.”
Before each flight from Dayton, Morse meets departing veterans at the airport, greeting each one personally. When the airplane lands in Baltimore, Md., typically meeting up with Honor Flights from other cities, he assembles the group into waiting chartered buses and heads into nearby Washington, D.C.
At the memorial, located between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, veterans gravitate into the large circular pavilion ringed with elegant columns representing each state. Many are moved to tears. Dozens of other visitors are anxious to meet the veterans, shake their hands and express their thanks.
“A young female sailor came up to me and asked what branch of the military I was in,” says Fern Metcalf, 84, a U.S. Navy WAVES veteran from Troy, Ohio. “When I told her the Navy, she grabbed my arm and asked another sailor to take a picture of us. Then she stayed with me as I walked all around the memorial.”
“Here I am, 84 years old, with a smile I can’t wipe off,” Metcalf adds. “It gives me goose bumps when I think about how special we were made to feel.”
George Cordrey, 85, who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima, traveled from Cincinnati to Columbus to connect with his Honor Flight trip. “A couple approached me from out of the blue,” he says. “They hugged me and thanked me. I don’t know who they were or where they were from, but we all sobbed. It was so touching.”
“They’ll have a whole day of people coming up to them, shaking their hands, thanking them,” Morse says. “At the end of the day, they’ll have a tremendous understanding of how much this country admires their service and their sacrifice.”
A rejuvenating effect
At the center of the memorial is a pair of gushing, towering fountains —symbols, according to the memorial’s official statement of purpose, “of the moral strength and awesome power that can flow when a free people are united and bonded together in a just cause.” Morse says the torrents of water have a rejuvenating effect on the visiting veterans.
“I call it the fountain of youth,” he says. “There’s a transformation that takes place. They get on the plane in the morning, they’re in their 80s. They get on that evening to come back home, it’s like they’re in their 60s.”
Some 1,500 World War II veterans are on a waiting list of upcoming Honor Flights and Morse vows to keep working until they all get to see the memorial that honors them. And even then, he has no plans to stop.
“Once we get all the World War II vets, we’ll get the Korean vets,” he says. “And then we’ll help the Vietnam vets . . . and the vets of Iraq and Afghanistan, if there’s a memorial for that. This is going to continue.”
“This is the most honorable, noble thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he adds. “It’s so much further-reaching and meaningful than I ever thought it was going to be.”
Visit www.honorflight.org or call (937) 521-2400 for more information