Broder column: Taking wing in veterans’ honor

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 6, 2009

Vets deserve the best care we can give
WASHINGTON ó A couple weeks before Veterans Day, I went down to the World War II Memorial on the Mall to join Bob and Elizabeth Dole and a group of elderly soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen from her hometown of Salisbury, N.C., who had been flown to Washington that morning to get their first view of the nation’s tribute to the troops that helped defeat Hitler’s forces.
Bob Dole, who was badly wounded in Italy during that war, had just been recognized with a plaque for spurring creation of the memorial, and Elizabeth Dole said that “Bob and I are down here almost every Saturday,” greeting one of the Honor Flights that bring veterans to Washington to see the memorial.
This flight was special, because their caps and T-shirts bore the name of her older brother, the late John Hanford, himself a Navy veteran.
After the ceremonies, while the veterans were enjoying a picnic lunch, I visited with Jeff Miller, another North Carolinian who is co-chairman of the Honor Flight Network. Miller, a small-businessman, told me that when the memorial opened, he regretted that his father, a Navy vet, had never gotten to see it. An idea began to form and he started talking to friends about how wonderful it would be if they could somehow arrange for all the World War II vets in their home county who wanted to see the memorial to be flown to Washington.
He talked his way into the office of an executive of US Airways ó himself the son of two war vets ó and just before Christmas in 2006, he had raised enough money to send the first chartered plane to Washington.
The next year, Bob Dole came aboard and Bill Geist of CBS did a Sunday morning feature on the program ó and it took off. With groups now operating in 33 states, 40,000 veterans have been treated to their first view of “their” memorial.
Those I met said they were overwhelmed by the honor. But really, as Elizabeth Dole told them, “It is you who honor us.”
That experience was still much on my mind when John Bridgeland, a friend who had worked in the George W. Bush White House, sent me a report that will be issued on Veterans Day, outlining a volunteer community program focused on the nearly 2 million young Americans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“They are a vulnerable population, especially during the transition home,” the report says, with higher rates of suicide, homelessness, unemployment and dependence on food stamps than their contemporaries.
But the thrust of the report is that these men and women, products of the all-volunteer armed forces, responded to a survey with answers showing they brought their patriotic motivations back with them from the wars. Many of them are eager to become involved in projects in their hometowns, but relatively few have been asked to help.
The report ó from Civic Enterprises in Washington ó sketches many ways in which they might be mobilized ó as rewarding a Veterans Day project as the Honor Flights.
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David Broder writes columns for The Washington Post. Contact him at