A veteran reflects at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Twice a year, Honor Flight Syracuse flies veterans to the nation's capital to visit their respective conflicts' memorials. (Photo courtesy of Honor Flight Syracuse)
“I’m not a hero; I was just doing my job.”
It’s not uncommon to hear this refrain from many veterans, especially those of the Greatest Generation. But, hero or not, every person who has served the country deserves to be recognized, according to the Honor Flight network.
“This is our opportunity to thank these men and women for their service and sacrifice to this country,” said Amy Delia of Honor Flight Syracuse.
Numerous cities across the nation have a chapter of the Honor Flight Network. The organization provides twice-yearly flights to veterans to visit their respective conflicts’ memorials in Washington, D.C., at no cost to the veterans. After visiting the memorials, the veterans are treated to a gala featuring dancers dressed in 1940s and ‘50s attire and copious refreshments before they return home.
The Syracuse wing of the organization is currently looking to recruit veterans for its Sept. 29, 2018, flight.
As the number of World War II and Korean War veterans dwindles — according to Honor Flight Syracuse, nearly 1,000 of these veterans pass away each day — Honor Flight’s mission grows more urgent.
“Pretty much if a World War II veteran applies, they automatically get in because there’s so few of them left,” Delia said.
Such recognition has been late in coming for World War II veterans. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened in 1982, seven years after the fall of Saigon. The National World War II Memorial was dedicated in 2004 — nearly six decades after the war ended.
“This was a mistake,” said Bill Meyer, veterans advocate for the town of Cicero.
Meyer accompanied his mother on an Honor Flight in 2014. Marian Meyer served as a sergeant in the Air Force during World War II. She was stationed in Texas, where she serviced radios on airplanes.
“She was tech in the army before women were allowed to be tech,” Bill Meyer said. “She was a bit of a pioneer in that regard. Most of the women at that time were either nurses or clerical.”
At first, Marian Meyer was reluctant to take the trip.
“You were really pushy about that, but I’m glad I went,” she said to her son.
Marian Meyer had passed through Washington, D.C., while traveling, but had never spent any time there. Standing in front of the National World War II Memorial, she said, she felt pride.
“[I was] standing there and watching how many veterans there were, and thankful that that many of us came back,” Meyer said.
“Whenever they start talking about it you can see they have to measure their words,” Bill Meyer said of veterans who have gone on Honor Flights, “because, to a person, they start to break down.”
According to Bill Meyer, the trip is unforgettable not just for the veterans, but for the family members and volunteers who accompany them.
“Whether you’re a veteran or a guardian, it’s one of those things that’s in the top 10 things you’ve ever done,” he said.
For Marian Meyer, joining the military was the natural thing to do when World War II broke out. She grew up in Camillus and ran a beauty shop after high school, which she left behind to join the Air Force.
“Practically everybody [was] in the service one way or another,” she recalled. “I felt very unimportant and not doing my job, so my [shop] assistant and I joined up.”
There were few women in Meyer’s position, and while her son sees her as a pioneer, she said she and her fellow servicemembers “lived every day the same as everybody else.”
Even now, Meyer seems to feel she did not do enough for her country. She recalled going to the Syracuse VA Medical Center recently, where she saw a young woman whose legs had been amputated.
“I wasn’t too proud of myself,” she said. “You can always say, ‘If I had gone, maybe someone else wouldn’t have gone, and maybe that girl would still have her legs.’”
Bill Meyer said many veterans, like his mother, are “unassuming” about their service, insisting that the true heroes are the ones who saw combat, or who didn’t return at all.
“Most of us just feel that we were doing a job that needed to be done,” Marian Meyer said.
Regardless of how humble many veterans may feel, they still deserve to be thanked for doing their jobs.
“If you served in the military, regardless of what you saw or what you did, we want to thank you because you signed up for it,” Delia said.
While the trip itself is quite a gift, one of the deeper rewards of Honor Flight is being able to connect with other veterans as well as reflect on their service.
“It’s a chance for them to reconnect with their buddies. It’s a chance for them to share their stories,” Delia said. “A lot of the veterans we take will open up in the way they’ve never opened up before. It’s a chance for them to reflect and to remember. A lot of them find it very therapeutic.”
Bill Meyer said Honor Flight connects veterans across generations as well. He recalled seeing a woman covered in tattoos jogging by the memorials when he and his mother were visiting. She stopped to chat and told them she was a military police captain.
“She was so appreciative of the fact that there were women who were not drafted but signed up and paved the way for women of her time,” Meyer said.
Each Honor Flight costs $30,000, so hundreds of donors and volunteers are needed to make it happen. There are many ways to help the effort, Meyer said, whether it’s becoming a guardian for a flight, volunteering at the organization’s booth during special events or making signs and cheering for the veterans at their send-off and return. But right now, Honor Flight needs recruiters.
“The biggest need right now for volunteers is people who know about this program to contact the veterans they know — their spouse, their parents, their uncle, their aunt,” Meyer said.
“If you’re part of a church group or a work group and you want to have us come in and talk about how to recruit veterans, give us a call and we’re happy to do that,” Delia said.
With the remaining World War II and Korea vets clocking in at 90 or older, Honor Flight is eager to give as many veterans as possible the opportunity for a “giant thank-you,” as Bill Meyer called it.
“These folks contributed a lot,” he said. “At this point in their life, they’ve got to do it now. If not now, when? And if not us, who’s going to help them? Now’s the time.”
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.