Originally Published: April 2, 2016 6:29 a.m.
Seven Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) cadets from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott campus returned to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix along with 23 World War II veterans from Arizona’s second Honor Flight trip of the spring season on Thursday, March 31.
Jason Kadah, communications and media relations manager for the university, described it as an “amazing scene.”
“Southwest Airlines announced and invited everyone in the “D” concourse to gather around as these WWII Vets deplaned,” Kadah said. “In addition to everyone who gathered around the arrival gate, everyone in the concourse was standing and applauding these heroes as they made their way to baggage claim.”
Honor Flight is a nonprofit organization that provides the estimated cost of $900 to fly and lodge a veteran going to Washington, D.C., through community donations and fundraisers, so that the trip is free for veterans.
The first Honor Flight trip took off in May 2005, at Manassas, Virginia, with the mission of providing a means for WWII veterans to see the World War II Memorial, which was completed just the year before. The program has since spread throughout the U.S., with 130 hubs in 44 states. Arizona began offering the flights in 2008.
Though WWII veterans and those with terminal illnesses have top priority, many Honor Flight programs throughout the country have opened up the opportunity to see this country’s memorials to Korean and Vietnam War veterans as the number of WWII veterans still alive and able to participate continues to decrease dramatically every year.
In previous years, Arizona Honor Flight’s waiting list of WWII veterans was consistently at about 300 to 400. As of today, that number is down to about 100, said Rob Krug, an ERAU alum and board member of Arizona Honor Flight who attended the most recent Honor Flight trip with the seven ERAU students.
“It’s just the reality of their age,” Krug said. “Their average age is 93, so we’re starting to see fewer of them come in, unfortunately, just because they’re passing away and their or their spouse’s health issues prevent them from making such a trip.”
About 430 of the approximately 697,806 WWII veterans pass away every day according to statistics released by the Veteran Administration.
By 2036, it is estimated none of the 16 million World War II veterans will still be alive to recount their experience.
Knowing there won’t be many WWII veterans around to interact with much longer, Carter Kozacek, one of the Embry-Riddle ROTC cadets that went on the trip this week, said it was a truly humbling experience.
“It’s just moving, especially for seven ROTC cadets, where it’s kind of like our history,” Kozacek said. “For the seven of us, it was kind of like, wow, this is where we came from; these are the shoes we’re stepping into.”
Every Honor Flight trip is structured so that each veteran is accompanied by at least one volunteer to help them on the one-to-two day trip.
While most volunteers typically have to pay their own way, the seven ERAU students were able to go on the trip at no cost to them due to sponsorships from their university, Arizona Honor Flight and the Yavapai Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
While in Washington, D.C., the veterans and the volunteers went to the World War II Memorial for a few hours, toured the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Navy Memorial, the Iwo Jima (Marine) Memorial, the Capitol Building and the Arlington National Cemetery.
Kozacek recalled a specific moment at the World War II memorial that he said he’ll never forget. One of the veterans in a wheelchair he was helping out that day wanted to take a photo under the Arizona pillar of the memorial and asked if he could tell Kozacek a few stories.
“He just opened-up and talked about everything he did in the war for about 30 or 45 minutes,” Kosacek said. “It was just him and I.”
Arizona Honor Flight organizes 10-to-11 trips a year and will likely open the trip up to Korean War veterans in the fall, Krug said.
“Our wait list for Korea right now is at 200, so we actually have a longer list of them than we do WWII,” Krug said.
As a whole, Honor Flight has flown 159,703 veterans to Washington, D.C. Of the 21,032 veterans on waiting lists, only 20 percent served in WWII.
For more information on Honor Flight, call 928-377-1020 or visit www.HonorFlightAz.org.