Honor Flight Warms Hearts of Heroes

John Kelly

Bob Karin DC

When Karin Bridwell, St. Vincent Home Health Senior Clinical Director, was growing up, she often heard her mother describe her dedication to the American support for World War II soldiers. Karin’s mother had collected military memorabilia, grew a victory garden, and saved money to donate to the war effort. Moreover, her father had served in the Korean War, so she was very aware of her family’s dedication to the United States Armed Forces and the brave soldiers who sacrificed so much for our country.

With her parents’ stories well embedded in her consciousness, Karin became instantly aware of media reports and news regarding the Indy Honor Flight’s efforts to recognize World War II and Korean War veterans.

Indy Honor Flight is a non-profit organization created solely to honor Indiana’s veterans with an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect on their war experience at the city’s many memorials. Senior veterans – World War II survivors and those who may be terminally ill – receive top priority for these flights.

Of all the wars our country has been engaged, World War II truly threatened our freedoms and even our existence as a nation. Indy Honor Flight and the many other Honor Flight organizations across the U.S. believe this is a fitting way to express our thanks to these brave men and women who served our country so valiantly.

When Karin saw the TV report about veterans returning from a trip to D.C., she was immediately moved by the event. “Seeing how elated the returning veterans were brought tears to my eyes and inspired me to want to get involved,” she said. “Most of these veterans never received a proper welcome when they came back from the War, so this kind of tribute is a much overdue way to make it up to them.”

She soon visited indyhonorflight.org and read about the program and how they take volunteers who serve as guardians for the veterans. The guardian’s job is to make sure the veteran stays safe and is kept well hydrated and nourished during the trip. Since many of the veterans are in wheelchairs or at risk for a fall, the guardian’s job is very important.

After submitting her application, she was offered an opportunity to go on a flight during Labor Day Weekend, 2016. She learned that she would accompany a Korean War veteran, Bob Boller, who was 83 and could still walk, occasionally with the aid of a cane. She had lost her own father before the Honor Flight began, so meeting and escorting Bob had extra meaning for her.

As she learned more about the program, she was amazed at all the details that were woven in to make the experience so special for the veterans.

Her day with Bob started very early in the morning. All the veterans and their guardians met at a local high school and boarded buses to the Indianapolis International Airport. The flight crew on the plane was all decked out with World War II scarves and pins and the plane was festooned with patriotic streamers and balloons.

When they arrived at the airport in Washington, D.C., a local fire truck gave the plane a “salute” with a celebratory water spray. As they exited the plane, hundreds of volunteers were lined up with signs, balloons, and flags – all cheering the War heroes.

Eight buses, decked out in military colors, were waiting to take them to the city’s famous monuments. A tour guide on their bus provided rich details of their destinations and added some fascinating history for the veterans and their guardians. As another surprise, they were paraded to the monuments with a local motorcycle club, which thrilled Bob, who had been an avid motorcyclist earlier in his life.

The visitors were greeted by a beautiful, warm day in D.C., and the monuments sparkled in the late summer sunshine. Their first stop was Arlington National Cemetery, where they witnessed the Changing of the Guard, which was truly an emotional experience for everyone.

Their next stop was the World War II Memorial, which Karin said was simply stunning and made a deep impression on her and all the veterans. During their arrival, members of a local high school soccer team greeted them and expressed their gratitude with colorful displays of appreciation.

The group also visited The Lincoln Memorial, The Washington Monument, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. At the Lincoln Memorial, a commemorative photo was staged for all the veterans and their guardians. All the veterans were beaming with pride as they were presented with large photos of them from their wartime days.

Those in wheelchairs had their photos positioned in front of them and the guardians held the photos over those who were standing. Each veteran was presented with a copy upon his/her return to Indianapolis. More wonderful photos can be found on the Indy Honor Flight website by clicking on "Photos" and "Pictures from IHF 18 & 19 on 9/3/16."

As Karin recalled, “The veterans were deeply touched and it certainly added to their unique, one-day adventure. Bob kept telling me throughout the day that he had no idea it was going to be such a big deal. And I would say, ‘you’re a big deal, Bob.’”

Another recognition awaited the group when they returned to Indianapolis and the local high school where their day started. A huge homecoming celebration greeted them with families, friends, students and many community volunteers creating a human tunnel, cheering and saluting them. Then, they were introduced individually inside the gymnasium with “kissing girls” welcoming each with a kiss on the cheek. All the veterans were naturally elated and, as Karin reported, “It was the icing on the cake for them.”

Since returning home, Karin has created a photo album that she will present to Bob when they reunite. She is so grateful for the Honor Flight experience, which gave her a deep appreciation for the role these men and women played to keep our country safe.

As she says, “I am so much more aware of the veterans in our community now, seeing them wearing their caps with the military veteran insignia on them. I am very proud of all of them.”

To date, hundreds of thousands of veterans across the country have been recognized with an Honor Flight experience, and Karin feels humbled and grateful to have played a role in thanking them.