January 9, 2009

VMC staff assist WWII vets on ‘Honor Flight’

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Katherine Wright, second from left, with World War II veterans, from left, Herschel Lannom, Benjamin Hutcherson and William Long in Washington, D.C.

VMC staff assist WWII vets on ‘Honor Flight’

World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,200 per day, many without ever seeing the memorial that honors them in Washington, D.C. But one organization, Honor Flight, is changing that by taking veterans on a free day trip to the nation's capitol.

The first Honor Flight in the Nashville area took place Sept. 24 with 100 veterans from Williamson and Davidson counties. Vanderbilt's Stephanie Grose and Katherine Wright were onboard as volunteers.

“It has always been a period of time in history that I have enjoyed learning about,” Wright said. “It seemed like an exciting opportunity to get to know people who were alive during such a crucial point in world history, and it was a way to honor them.”

Wright, a nurse at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center's Cool Springs clinic, and Grose, a care partner at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, were amazed at how many people also wanted to honor the veterans.

At each airport, employees and passengers gathered to clap and cheer, and baggage handlers waved flags as the plane taxied to the terminal.

“In the D.C. airport,” Wright said, “we came into the gate and U.S. Air had a banner and employees waiting. They had announced over the intercom to come and greet the veterans, and people of all cultures and political bents had come to the gate to cheer and shake hands. It was wonderful to experience that moment in time and to honor their service.”

“There was a really big showing, and the veterans were very emotional about it, that people would want to honor them,” Grose said.

The veterans even received a water salute when two fire trucks shot arcs of water over the plane.

Prior to the flight, the volunteers attended two meetings — one informational and one to meet the veterans. For Wright, one of the most emotional experiences was saying the Pledge of Allegiance with the veterans at that first meeting.

“It takes on a whole new meaning in that context. They fought for that,” she said. “I realized that the least I could do is say 'Thank you for putting your life on the line.'”

On flight day they were each assigned a small group of veterans to assist. Although they were not expected to use their medical training, Wright said safety was at the forefront of her mind all day.

“There was a lot of walking and I helped them navigate because a fall would be so dangerous. As a nurse, I was thinking I had to be really careful with these men, and pace them and let them take it all in. I felt a real sense of responsibility because families had entrusted us with their loved one,” she said.

The flight arrived in D.C. around noon, and the group went straight to the World War II memorial where they met other Honor Flight groups from across the country. Both Wright and Grose said the veterans were excited to see their memorial but also to meet fellow comrades and swap stories.

“Each of my veterans had different stories to share,” Grose said. “One was in the Battle of the Bulge and served with African-American troops. The other was in the Navy, stationed in China. It was amazing to hear their first-person accounts, and I enjoyed being able to share that moment with them. For many, it was one of the few times they had ever talked about it, and I was honored they shared it with me.”

The group also visited the Korean War memorial and saw the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery.

Honor Flight started in Grose's hometown, Hendersonville, N.C., and she was involved in early organizational efforts. Many of her family members are in the military, including her grandfather, a World War II veteran.

“He has passed on, but I decided to take others on the flight to honor him,” she said. “It is very important to remember history and honor those who fought for the freedoms we have today.”

Wright first heard about Honor Flight from a patient who was one of the organizers and worked on the project during chemotherapy treatments.

“I wouldn't have heard about it if it wasn't for my patient. I want to get the word out so Nashville will know when there is another flight,” she said. “There is so much division on the issue of war in our present day.

“It makes me sad the way we sometimes treat the men and women who have served, when they come home. This was an opportunity aside from all political feelings to say ‘thank you for serving our country.’”

For more information about Honor Flight, visit www.honorflight.org.