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New group honors aging veterans with free flight to Washington

War veterans from Middle Georgia pose for a photo with Cameron Payne, back left, an honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,  after the group visited the tomb on Sept. 8. It was part of a free tour of Washington war monuments arranged by the newly formed Middle Georgia Honor Flight.
War veterans from Middle Georgia pose for a photo with Cameron Payne, back left, an honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, after the group visited the tomb on Sept. 8. It was part of a free tour of Washington war monuments arranged by the newly formed Middle Georgia Honor Flight.

Last December Roger Jennings attended a meeting at work in which a representative of Honor Flight was talking.

The organization raises money to give aging war veterans a free trip to Washington to see the memorials in their honor. That sounded like a good cause to Jennings, an Air Force retiree and a civilian employee at Robins Air Force Base. He asked how he could get involved with the local chapter.

He was told there was no local chapter or even one nearby. There were only three in Georgia, which are in Atlanta, Savannah and Brunswick. The Honor Flight representative suggested to Jennings that he start a local chapter, so that’s what he did.

Middle Georgia Honor Flight was soon formed and granted non-profit status. As Jennings began to tell people and businesses about the cause, he got a lot of offers to help with time and money. The group soon raised enough funds for its first flight, which happened on Sept. 8. Twelve veterans from Middle Georgia took the chartered Contour Airlines flight from Macon to D.C. and spent the day touring monuments before returning that evening.

A large crowd was there to greet them with flags and banners honoring their service.

“I have never been blessed any better than I was on that trip,” said William “W.T.” Jones, 91, of Perry, a Marine who served during World War II. “I wish all veterans could go on it.”

Charles Day, 85, an Army veteran of Korea, had a similar take.

“It was one of the most interesting days I have ever spent in my life, to sit around and talk with World War II veterans other Korean veterans and the Vietnam veterans,” said Day, who lives in Macon. “It was just unbelievable what they did for us.”

Another flight is already planned for April 6. Jennings had hoped to have another one in October, but the airline requires a lot of lead time to book an entire flight, so April was the next available time when good weather would be likely.

Each flight has 30 seats, and because of the age of the veterans each one must have a guardian to help them get around. That can be a family member if the person is physically able, but for most of them it was a volunteer. The other seats are taken up by staff members, including a nurse. Jennings said there are no paid staff members.

At the World War II Memorial, they unexpectedly encountered former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, a decorated World War II veteran. Dole, the Republican nominee for president in 1996, spoke to each member of the group and posed for photos.

Vance Mathis, an Army veteran of Korea and Vietnam, said he has been to D.C. before but had never been able to make it to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, also known as The Wall. He was able to touch the name of an Army medic he bunked with the night before a big battle in which the medic, J.M. Kelly, was killed and later awarded the Silver Star for his actions.

Mathis, 82, said he was grateful for the entire experience and for how the veterans were treated.

“I have never enjoyed anything more in my life,” said Mathis, who lives in Bonaire.

Because of their age, Jennings said for now the priority is on veterans of World War II and Korea, followed by Vietnam. But he said veterans of all wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan, are invited to try to get on a flight. He said in some cases, such as a terminal illness, a younger veteran may be accepted.

For the April flight, there are already 18 veterans signed up. But Jennings said veterans who are interested should still contact the group because some of those currently signed up may not be able to go.

Veterans who are interested in getting on a flight, or anyone who wants to donate or help out, can contact the group at 478-744-1350, email middlegahonorflight@gmail.com, or visit middlegahonorflight.org. Because of the few Honor Flight chapters in Georgia, Jennings said veterans as far away as Columbus and south Georgia are invited to apply.

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