After 71 missions, Great River Honor Flight organizer says many veterans continue to question whether they should go

Iwo Jima Memorial

Members of the Great River Honor Flight visit the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va. | Photo courtesy of Carlos Fernandez

QUINCY — Carlos Fernandez worked in broadcasting for 46 years, and despite all the “cool things” he got to do during that time, he said nothing compares to the Great River Honor Flight.

“I never got to do anything as cool as this,” he said.

Fernandez, chairman of the Great River Honor Flight Board of Directors, and board Vice President Sharon Lake want more veterans to experience this program’s impact on more than 2,000 veterans since 2010.

“It’s something they appreciate and that they rightly deserve,” Fernandez said.

The Great River Honor Flight program flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials that honor their service and sacrifices. Its 71st mission was last week.

Fernandez said people often waited up to two years for applicants desiring to go on a mission when the program first started. That waiting period now is virtually non-existent.

“We’re in a situation where we may have enough veterans to fill up the rest of the flights for this year, but we don’t have anyone for next year really,” Fernandez said. “I yearn for those days when we had that two-year waiting period.”

Lake said some veterans hesitate to apply for the program because they don’t believe they are worthy to go.

“They don’t think they deserve it because they weren’t in the field,” Lake said. “I tell them all the time it doesn’t matter because when you signed up. They didn’t say, ‘Well hun, do you want to go to Orlando or do you want to go to Vietnam?’ You went where you went and you did what you were told to do.”

Fernandez has had similar interactions with veterans who question whether they should go.

“A lot of times these guys say, ‘Wait a minute, we weren’t in Vietnam’ or ‘I was stationed in Germany,’” Fernandez said. “Our comment to them is, ‘Was that your call?’ Of course not.”

Rank has no bearing on eligibility for the Great River Honor Flight. All local veterans who served between World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and up until 1985 are eligible.

“The whole point is to celebrate their service, to show our gratitude,” Fernandez said. “Whether they served a two-year term or 25, it doesn’t matter. Whether they’re a general or a private, it doesn’t matter.”

Last week’s mission featured 28 veterans along with their guardians — who look after the veterans during the trip — who left Quincy on a bus bound for St. Louis shortly after midnight Thursday. They boarded a 5:15 a.m. flight from Lambert International Airport and arrived in Baltimore at 8 p.m.

The Washington D.C. itinerary included visits to the Vietnam Wall, Korean Memorial, World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial, Air Force Memorial, Navy Memorial and the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

The veterans flew back from Reagan International Airport to St. Louis and hopped back on the bus for their return trip to Quincy. Along the way in New London, they met up with a police escort that accompanied them the rest of the way. They returned to the JWCC Student Activity Center where friends, family and members of the community greeted them and they were introduced one-by-one.

“They walk a red carpet,” Lake said of the Great River Honor Flight’s efforts to do everything they can to pay their respects.

Fernandez said Great River Honor Flight sometimes gets pushback from people questioning whether the trip should extend over multiple days instead of just one. His answer to that question is the same every time.

“On the way back, it’s the young guardians who are asleep,” Fernandez said. “The veterans are talking to each other. If you look at the faces of these veterans after they’ve been up for 24 hours, their eyes are as bright as can be.”

The memorials are an important part of the trip, but Lake said they rarely are the first thing veterans mention when looking back fondly on that special day.

“They won’t mention Washington, D.C,” Lake said. “They’re going to mention the motorcycles, the letters they received, the thank yous they received and the homecoming. The highlight of that trip is the last hour on the bus. That’s what gives them what they’ve been missing and fills the void that they’ve felt so long for the way they were treated.”

In fact, some veterans have written letters to Great River Honor Flight thanking them for the experience. One read in part, “‘Thank you’ does not come close enough to showing my gratitude. The escort and the reception when we returned was something I’ll never forget. I cannot imagine any welcome home 54 years ago that would have compared to that night.”

While Great River Honor Flight’s goal is to get as many veterans as possible to sign up, Fernandez emphasized the importance of staying humble.

“We don’t want to get to the point where we’re so cocky that we think everybody knows who we are. It would be a shame for us to take that into consideration,” Fernandez said. “We want to make sure that we’re out there talking about it with the same enthusiasm that we were talking about it with 15 years ago.”

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