On a clear, warm April morning, a chartered 737 aircraft lifted into the skies above Wilmington International Airport. On board were not the usual businesspeople, commuters or vacationers, but a very special group of passengers. Seventy-four veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam were on their way to see memorials built to honor their service to America. Most were about to see those memorials for the first time. They are everyday people, brave souls, your neighbors who answered the call to serve.
The Honor Flight network is a national nonprofit organization started in 2005 by pilots who volunteered to fly World War II veterans to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (There was also a group in western North Carolina that took veterans to see the memorials.)
Most of those veterans would not otherwise have had the opportunity to see the memorials and take part in ceremonies that honor their service. Since then, eligibility has opened to veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars, and today the Honor Flight network has 125 hubs across the country, working together to show American veterans the appreciation they deserve.
One of those hubs is Honor Flight of the Cape Fear Area. The original hub that operated out of Wilmington in 2009-2010 was called Honor Flight of Southeast North Carolina. It was re-established in 2020 with its new name. The president, founder and trip leader is Ruth Ravitz Smith. Smith was a volunteer for the national Honor Flight Organization in Washington, D.C., when she lived there, and when she moved to Wilmington in 2015, her dream was to re-form a hub here.
“Honor Flight of the Cape Fear Area honors our veterans by taking them on an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington for a day of remembrance as they visit the memorials and monuments built in their honor,” Smith says. “We welcome men and women from all service branches and veterans with terminal illnesses from any era to apply as well. They always travel free of any charge and each veteran has a volunteer guardian to support them. Our many wonderful volunteers coordinate the entire trip from takeoff to welcome-home ceremonies to make this a trip of a lifetime. We will see the memorials and monuments around the National Mall, which include the World War II Memorial, Vietnam, Korea, Iwo Jima, Navy Memorial, Air Force Memorial, and we’ll even observe the changing of the guards at Arlington Cemetery.”
The inaugural flight was April 30, 2022, with 72 veterans and 72 guardians followed by the second flight April 29, 2023, with 74 veterans and guardians. Both flights had medical and administration staff aboard.
Since 2005 nearly 275,000 veterans have participated in Honor Flight from around the country. Through these flights, veterans can share precious time with other veterans, reminisce, and tell their stories and experiences.
The 2023 flight included two World War II veterans and nine who served in Korea with the balance being Vietnam veterans. They hailed mainly from New Hanover and Brunswick counties, others were from Pender County, several were from South Carolina, and another from the Outer Banks. Others were from Sampson, Vance, Bladen, Onslow, Columbus, Duplin, Pamlico, Wake and Carteret counties.
“Additionally we work to educate the public on the service provided by these men and women and give local citizens and organizations an opportunity to express their gratitude,” Smith says. “We are an all-volunteer 501(c)3 organization.”
For both flights, there was huge support from community members who welcomed the veterans with signs, banners and flags inside the Wilmington airport. In 2023, students from Myrtle Grove Middle School happened to be in Washington that day and, thanks to coordination with their teachers, greeted the veterans at the WWII Memorial.
One of the founders of the Honor Flight program is Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain and physician assistant who was working at a VA clinic in Dayton, Ohio. Morse knew most of his patients could not financially or physically make a journey to Washington to see the memorials being built in their honor. He was also a private pilot and a member of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Aero Club. He knew many veterans would look at a trip to Washington as a lifetime event. He asked for help from other pilots to make these dreams a reality. The flight would be free and the pilots would personally sponsor all costs and serve as personal escorts. Eleven pilots stepped up to volunteer and Honor Flight was born.
One of those pilots was Craig Kern who flew with Morse out of Wright-Patterson in small planes similar to the Cessna 172 on the original flight. Kern now lives in Wallace, North Carolina, and was a special passenger on the April 29 flight.
“It was a great pleasure and honor to be on the April flight from Wilmington,” says Kern. “We visited nine memorials, and our veterans had the chance to share a great experience and pass memories down. This year thousands of veterans will make the trip across the U.S., and we are so incredibly blessed to have wonderful patriotic and selfless volunteers who turn our veterans’ dreams into reality.”
Kern, Morse, Smith and many more are indeed the selfless volunteers who continue to make Honor Flight an American dream for our veterans.
Jeff Miller, a businessman in Hendersonville, North Carolina, had a similar idea but on a larger scale. He wanted to charter commercial jets to accommodate larger veteran groups. He formed HonorAir and began flying WWII veterans from the Asheville Regional Airport. By the end of 2006, HonorAir had flown more than 300 WWII veterans to their memorial thanks to Miller and supporters.
The April flight was an exceptional and poignant event for Navy Vietnam veteran Don Lerche.
“The Honor Flight of the Cape Fear Area was one of the most memorable single events in my life that I will never forget,” says Lerche. “I encourage everyone to support your Cape Fear Honor Flight chapter. They do absolutely amazing work. They give each veteran an opportunity to visit the memorial dedicated to their service, but they do so much more than that – they help us heal.”
Lerche’s guardian, whom he described as a guardian angel, was Sarah Giachino.
“As guardians, we are responsible solely for that veteran and assisting them to carry out their dreams of seeing the memorials and having a day of honor,” says Giachino. “We help as needed in pre-flight meetings, reviewing material and schedules with our veteran, and overall ensuring the veteran has a happy, memorable trip. In many cases, the honor flight is the beginning of a healing process for veterans. Many struggle with the consequences of war experiences, which are difficult for others to understand. They need to talk, to share, to have peace, to see gratitude. The demand on my time was nothing compared to the joy I received from seeing veterans happy, hopeful, and peaceful on these trips.”
If you want to go: Applications for the April 20, 2024 flight to D.C. are posted on the Honor Flight of the Cape Fear Area website. Priority is given to World War II and Korean era veterans and to others on a first-come, first-served basis. Guardians and volunteers are asked to make a donation toward their expenses. Volunteer applications are also available on the website: https://www.honorflightcfa.org/applications