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Honor Flights Serve Those Who Have Served With a Trip to Remember

May 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The non-profit program Honor Flight gives veterans the opportunity to fly to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials dedicated to the wars in which they’ve served. For many veterans, especially those who have served in World War II, this may be the only chance they will get to see these memorials. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now a special effort to honor those who have served in the nation’s wars.

World War II veterans from Arizona preparing to take a flight, one filled with anticipation and special meaning. This is an Honor Flight, part of an eight-year-old nonprofit program for vets who’ve never had the chance before to go to Washington to see the memorials, particularly the one honoring their service.

Upon landing in Baltimore, they met a large crowd of well-wishers offering a hero’s welcome. This group, 30 men in their 80s and 90s, is one of 370 visiting the nation’s capital this year alone.

Eighty-five-year-old Marvin Murphy lives in Apache Junction, Ariz., east of Phoenix.

MARVIN MURPHY, U.S. Military Veteran: We had tears. I was speechless. They didn’t promise us this before we came. It was just, well, we’re going to take you here, you know? And forever, forever, I will be grateful. It is something, really something.

JEFFREY BROWN: The next day, at the World War II Memorial, the tour and the welcome, this time by middle schoolers, continued.

More than 800 veterans of that war die every day. And there’s a quiet understanding on these trips that this may well be a first and last visit.

EARL MORSE, Founder, Honor Flight: One of the greatest joys is when you look over at the World War II Memorial and you see it filled with World War II veterans. That’s what this is all about. It’s their memorial. They have earned it, and they need to see it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Earl Morse is the founder of Honor Flight. He works as a physician assistant for the VA in Springfield, Ohio. He’s also a retired Air Force captain and private pilot. In 2004, he flew his father, a Vietnam veteran, to Washington, along with several World War II vets he’d been caring for. Seeing their reaction, the idea was born.

The program began with small private planes ferrying vets and has grown exponentially. On some days, four different jets fly in veterans from all over the country. It’s funded by donations, corporate and individual.

EARL MORSE: They come out here for two reasons. Reason number one is, they want to see how this nation is going to remember their accomplishment. Reason two is they want to know how their buddies are going to be remembered.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of the power of the experience, clearly, is sharing it with others, a common bond that exists even when they’re meeting for the first time.

MAN: Wow. You were a good-looking young man.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eighty-seven-year-old Bill Casto, who enlisted on his 17th birthday, served in the Navy in the Northern Solomon Island campaign and was injured on his P.T. boat.

I asked what he remembers most from that time.

WILLIAM CASTO, U.S. Military Veteran: A lot of fear for, one thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fear?

WILLIAM CASTO: Yes, most of it because of the unknown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

WILLIAM CASTO: Once you got a little experience, you had less fear of certain things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Right.

WILLIAM CASTO: But there were times when I was scared to death. I remember I used to have the fear of standing guard duty at nights in the jungle, because I could just imagine some Japanese sneaking up behind me and cutting my throat.

JEFFREY BROWN: Casto went on to serve in Korea, Vietnam — his son served there as well — and later in the Merchant Marine during the first Gulf War. He thinks few Americans understand that members of his generation, the so-called greatest generation, often experienced problems associated with later conflicts.

WILLIAM CASTO: I was too old to go back to high school, so I took high school courses at a vocational school, and I got my diploma. But I kept having problems. They call now post-traumatic stress now. We didn’t know what it was. But I didn’t know where I belonged or how I fit in. And I was really getting concerned about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was hard to get back?

WILLIAM CASTO: Oh, yes, it was hard for me to adjust, really.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marvin Murphy enlisted days before his 18th birthday. He, too, served in the Navy and participated in the atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll just after the war.

MARVIN MURPHY: It was your duty. It was your country. And I don’t know. You don’t let somebody just run all over you if you can stop it. And so we decided to stop it.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you feel after all these years later, where you’re watching at the memorial?

MARVIN MURPHY: Oh, awesome.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

MARVIN MURPHY: Awesome. I can cry with the best of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And today — and, today, you had some tears?

MARVIN MURPHY: Oh, yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: On this day, the veterans talked with the young students and together observed a wreath-laying in honor of those who gave their lives.

When we saw you with the young people here a little earlier, what do you want them to know?

MARVIN MURPHY: Oh, yes. Well, I think not the sacrifice that we made, but I think they need to realize that if and when the time comes, if they have to do that, that it should be their duty to do it. They should want to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The men also visited other sites, including the Naval Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery …

MAN: Thank you for your service.

JEFFREY BROWN: … where they observed the changing of the guard, and the Iwo Jima Memorial.

It was also clear that an important part of this experience was for family members of the aging veterans, like Trudy Miller.

TRUDY MILLER, Family Member of Veteran: I was very proud to be walking with them.

MARVIN MURPHY: Yes. Yes.

TRUDY MILLER: We will never forget this trip, will we?

MARVIN MURPHY: No, no.

TRUDY MILLER: No. No, very special.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then there was a smiling Sarah Kersh, who happened upon another group of Honor Flight veterans at the airport and sought us out to talk about her grandfather, Maj. George Elbert Douglas, who’d made the trip in 2012.

SARAH KERSH, Granddaughter of Military Veteran: I have the tags from my grandfather’s Honor Flight — Flight on my suitcase. And he went on the Honor Flight and came home and died three days later. He loved his experience, and it was, he said, the happiest time of his life.

He loved his World War II buddies, but didn’t talk about the war at all when I was a child until I started asking some questions. And by the time I was a young adult, he had collected a whole bunch of memorabilia and books, and wanted the world to know what they had lived through and what they had done.

JEFFREY BROWN: To date, Honor Flight has brought some 100,000 veterans to Washington. The oldest was 108. Top priority goes to World War II veterans and terminally ill vets of any conflict. But demand is great. Some 20,000 men and women are on a waiting list.

EARL MORSE: When you tell a veteran, I’m sorry, we don’t have the funds right now, but we should get you next year, the response is usually, I hope I’m still alive next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: As of now, 41 states have Honor Flight groups. The hope is that number and the number of visits will continue to grow.

And, online, you can watch an extended interview with 85-year-old Marvin Murphy about his experience in World War II.