One of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as a journalist was the Honor Flight trip I took last September to Washington, D.C., with 100-plus World War II veterans from southwest Iowa.
It was a privilege for me to accompany these special men and women to our nation’s capital to get a first-hand look at the memorial that’s been erected in their honor.
In addition to seeing the World War II Memorial, the one-day whirlwind tour of the D.C. area included stops at the Iwo Jima Memorial, Korean War Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery. The Changing of the Guard at Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknowns was as impressive of a ceremony as I’ve ever seen and one that stirred the emotions of every person in attendance - veterans and non-veterans alike.
I had the opportunity to visit with many of our Mills County veterans who took part in the Honor Flight that day and they were all extremely moved by the experience and grateful for the opportunity. Just like myself, many of the veterans were seeing the military memorials and Washington for the very first time.
The Honor Flight program was established with the intent of getting these veterans to Washington to see the World War II Memorial that was dedicated in 2004. More than 16 million Americans served their country during World War II and more than 400,000 paid the ultimate sacrifice.
According to 2008 statistics, approximately 1,000 World War veterans die every day in our country. That’s why there’s such an urgency to get these men and women to Washington to see their memorial.
I learned last week that four of the veterans who were on the September Honor Flight have passed away since the trip.
Council Bluffs businessman Jeff Ballenger is the person who’s taken on the responsibility to arrange and coordinate the Honor Flight program for southwest Iowa.
During last September’s trip, Ballenger told me that he gets as much out of the trips to Washington as the veterans do, calling his work a labor of love.
“My grandfather was in the war,” Ballenger said. “I keep looking around at these guys and I think I’m going to see my grandfather. He’s no longer with us. What I got out of it was an opportunity to say thank you to the Greatest Generation.”
Ballenger’s work isn’t done. He’s set up another Honor Flight for southwest Iowa veterans on May 5. The challenge for Ballenger isn’t finding the veterans (he has a long list), the challenge is finding the funding.
The Honor Flights are fully funded by private donations. The cost of the May Honor Flight will carry a price tag of about $100,000.
The September Honor Flight was made possible by the generosity of the Charles and Chuck Lakin families of Mills County, The May 5 Honor Flight is less than five weeks away and about $32,000 is still needed to cover expenses. The program has received $25,000 from an anonymous donor, $25,000 from the Iowa West Foundation and more than $15,000 from other donors.
Ballenger would love to hear from any other person, business or organization who might be interested in making a donation to this very worthwhile cause. He can be contacted at 322-6638 or 402-306-1139.
“I know times are tough,” Ballenger said. “But, these guys went to war for us. They deserve this opportunity.”
I couldn’t agree more.