More than 300 World War II veterans from Dallas are on a waiting list to take an all-expense paid, overnight tour to Washington, D.C., to see the National WWII Memorial. A local nonprofit was founded on the belief that all of them deserve to see it before it’s too late.

Honor Flight of Dallas, based near Lake Highlands, aims to get as many WWII vets as possible to the monument — “their memorial”, organizers emphasize. They offer the opportunity twice a year, in May and October.

Last month, 41 veterans took the trip.

“It is a shame our country waited until a few years ago to build a monument to the greatest generation,” Honor Flight of Dallas president Rhonda Ensey tells a roomful of vets gathered at C.C. Young Retirement Community near White Rock Lake, days before the flight. “You deserve to see it — this trip is a ‘thank you’ for what you did for this country.”

The time to show our gratitude to these veterans is running out, says volunteer Rachel Hedstrom, noting that WWII vets are dying at a rate of more than a thousand a day nationwide.

Honor Flight originally was organized in 2004 in Ohio, and Honor Flight of Dallas began operating in 2008. Ensey has recruited several of her family members to help out. Her sister, Suzanne Gentry Flodin, for example, manages publicity; son Brett Franks and brother Kim Gentry, both medical professionals, are part of the medical team that accompanies veterans on the flight; and sisters Robin and Cindi Gentry also volunteer on the trips.

“I’ve dragged them into it,” Ensey says, “but they all love it as much as I do.”

Ensey says money is the biggest challenge when it comes to getting the veterans to D.C. She and the other volunteers work hard to raise it, sometimes collecting donations outside Walmart. Volunteer Rachel Hedstrom entered the Mrs. Texas International pageant — she’s Mrs. Collin County — just to publicize Honor Flight by using the charity as her pageant platform.

“She’s not a pageant type of person,” Gentry Flodin says. “She did it solely to raise awareness about Honor Flight.”

Hedstrom cannot say enough about how much Honor Flight means to her, but she doesn’t have to; she’s wearing her crown, sash and pageant dress at the pre-trip informational meeting where she greets each of the veterans with a warm smile and a handshake.

Volunteers lead the two-day adventure that includes a bus tour with professional tour guides through D.C. In addition to the WWII memorial, the travelers visit Arlington Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans memorials. They also spend an afternoon at Walter Reed Hospital with wounded Iraq war veterans. Tom Gardner, who took the trip in May, recalls meeting the warriors.

“Some were days and hours out of Afghanistan and Iraq. What an honor and a privilege to meet these troops right off the field of battle,” Gardner writes in a ‘thank you’ letter to Honor Flight. “They were waiting there to meet us WWII veterans, but we were proud, proud, proud to meet them.”

Volunteers pay their own way, and make sure the veterans want for nothing.

“If they need a cup of coffee, we buy it. If they feel like sitting down, we have wheelchairs for them. (“If you get tired,” a member of the medical team tells the participants, “please let us push you. We want to!”) They don’t pay for anything or have anything to worry about,” Ensey says.

WWII vet Ted Walker, a resident at C.C. Young, helped organize the meeting, but says he probably won’t ever see the memorial.

“I’ve been on the list to go the last couple times, but my health won’t let me. Cancer.”

Walker wears a bolo tie with a gold purple heart. He was shot at Guadalcanal, he says. A Navy vet, he enlisted at age 18, and spent six years on the same ship. “It wasn’t all bad — in fact it was wonderful in a lot of ways. Six years with the same guys. You make friends. We had a reunion 30 years ago. We had them every year after that until we all got too old.”

Walker is sad that he can’t go on the Honor Flight trip, but it is satisfying to know that another WWII vet will get to travel in his place, he says.

Gardner called the experience an event he will remember for the rest of his life.

“Honor Flight made 35 old soldiers feel proud, feel worthy, and feel young again,” he says.

Older vets and those with terminal illness take top priority during the Honor Flight selection process. Application forms are available on honorflightofdallas.org. Applications to serve as a volunteer or a guardian on the trip also are available on the site.


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