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Reflections on an Honor Flight

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  • Written By: Scott Diering, MD, Emergency Medicine
Reflections on an Honor Flight

Reflections on an Honor Flight

Written by: Scott Diering, MD, Emergency Medicine

Imagine you are 22 years old. It’s October, and you are flying in in cloudy weather. A cool wind is blowing in your face, because the aircraft door is open. You are about to jump. You are an army paratrooper, 30 miles behind the North Korean line, north of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

It is 1950.

You are part of the first UN military incursions into North Korea, in what will become known as the Korean Conflict (or, Korean War, June 25, 1950-July 27, 1953.)

This was the experience of Alphonso Espinoza, PFC, US Army. I met him over 70 years later, on my most recent Rocky Mountain Honor Flight.

It was a privilege to join him and 29 other veterans on a trip to Washington, DC, to see their memorials.

The Honor Flight Network was established as a way to escort veterans of WWII, without any cost to the veterans, to visit the national World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. The first flights began in 2005, a year after the memorial opened. The idea quickly spread to many United States cities and states, and thousands of World War II (WWII) veterans have been fortunate enough to attend one of the flights. However, as the WWII veterans have gradually grown too infirm to travel, or have died, many of the Honor Flight chapters (called “hubs”) have regarded their mission as over, and have disbanded.

Fortunately, the Rocky Mountain Honor Flight (RMHF), based out of the front range of Colorado, continues to fly veterans to Washington, DC, to visit the memorials.

We flew out the morning of Thursday, September 15. Denver International Airport provides special security screening for our group (which included twenty “Guardians.”) Southwest Airlines allows us early access to the plane, and we took up the first nine and a half rows. Upon landing at Baltimore-Washington International airport, we were greeted by a firehose salute, from the airport fire trucks. As we made our way into the terminal, everyone in the area greeted us with applause! The Honor Flight organization has “Ground Crews” who invited the waiting passengers to cheer our arrival! The Ground Crew then escorted us to baggage, and our awaiting bus.

We had dinner at the airport hotel that evening, and rested for the busy days that awaited us.

Although I was the physician for the flight, I was also a guardian. (The ‘guardians’ are volunteers who assist the vets. We pay our own way, and accept no compensation.) We pushed wheelchairs, (for those vets who chose not to walk), or walked with the vets. We are responsible to be of assistance with everything from distributing on-the-road meals, to helping on and off the bus, to just listening. The only item that distinguished me from the other guardians was my red backpack, in which I carry a variety of medical supplies (which I gathered from donations, or purchased myself… fortunately, I did not need them too often!)

Over the next two days, we visited the WWII memorial, the Korean War and Vietnam War memorials, the Lone Sailor memorial, The Navy Yard Museums, the Iwo Jima Memorial (where we had the group picture taken), and, finally, the Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia. We attended The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (The military guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is changed in an elaborate ceremony that happens every half hour in the summer.) The guards, who rarely speak, “saluted” the veterans by scuffing their dress shoes on the cement, as the guards marched past.

Another vet whom I had the honor of meeting, was Navy Captain Harry Zirkelbach. He is 100 years old. His job in WWII was to disable floating mines which were placed to disrupt Japanese ships. He did this during the war, at re-captured ports, as well as for a year afterwards, in Japan. His humility served as an example for everyone who met him.

Not all the vets saw combat. Anthony Fetz, Army Specialist, was a psychotherapist during the Viet Nam war. His job was to evaluate and treat the many vets with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (this illness, which can be very disabling, was called “shell shock” during WWI and “Combat Stress Reaction”, aka, Combat Fatigue in WWII and the Korean War). He had to determine if, and when, severe sufferers could leave the locked ward. Today, he travels around the country with a large, organized prayer group, and offers prayers for our country, and anyone who requests prayers.

When we landed back at the airport in Denver, we were greeted by throngs of applauding, cheering crowds, bagpipes, the families of the vets, a veteran’s motorcycle organization, and several groups of school-aged children!

To a person, all the vets expressed how enjoyable and memorable the trip was. For some, it was closure. For others, it allowed introspection. For every vet, it was a chance to be honored for their military experiences and anguishes, from long, long ago.

  • Category: CCH News, Doctor, Emergency Department, Employee Recognition