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Honor flights offer long-delayed welcome home to veterans

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at MSU chapter.

In the main lobby of Bishop International Airport, cheering crowds waving American flags recently gathered to give a warm welcome to 77 Vietnam veterans as they returned home from a tour of the nation’s capital.

The Tour of Honor provides veterans with a chance to have a different experience, since many say they had not received a warm welcome upon their initial return to the U.S. The Mid-Michigan Honor Flight is one of the 125 hubs that belong to the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization designed to recognize veterans for their service. 

The Mid-Michigan hub, based in Grand Rapids, sends three flights a year to Washington, D.C., allowing veterans a chance to see the nation’s capital and tour the city.

The president of the mid-Michigan hub is Robert Green. He served in the Army at Fort Bliss, Texas, before being stationed in Germany. Green, of Frederic Township near Grayling, accompanied his father on an honor flight in 2015, which inspired him to become more involved in the organization. 

“It’s still as emotional today as it was when I went with my father on his honor flight,” Green said. “I choke up and my voice starts to crack. I get emotional because you get to see the veterans get the honor and the recognition that they never got.”

Each hub is responsible for raising its own funding, and the Honor Flight Network runs fully on donations from families, individuals and businesses.

Upon their arrival to the U.S. capital, the veterans visited memorials, including the World War II and the Vietnam War memorials, and returned to Flint that evening. 

At the airport, they received a hand-sewn teddy bear and a small quilt, courtesy of Sandra Howe of Stanwood, the owner and founder of Project Hero Hugs. She started hand-sewing bears and quilts for veterans in 2016, saying, “I decided to find more people that needed a hug.”

Howe looked on with tears in her eyes as the veterans hugged their new bears. 

“It’s my addiction,” she said. “When I give a hug to a veteran, I tell him that when you hug your bear, feel us all hug you back. Watching their emotions makes me want to run home and start sewing again.”

There were also boxes of mail awaiting the returnees. Several veterans said that mail call was one of the most important moments during their service overseas because it was the only time they got to hear from their loved ones. To pay tribute to that special time, the Honor Flight Network asked relatives to write letters to their veterans to be distributed during the reenactment of a mail call.

Some participating veterans said that night was the first time they got to share their story and be recognized for their service. “When I came back off the plane, we weren’t supposed to wear our military uniforms,” said Glenn Cook, who served in Vietnam from 1971 to 1972. “This is great, this is one of the best things that I’ve had happen to me, with the warmth and people taking care of us and everything like that. It doesn’t get much better than this.”

Green said almost 600 veterans are on the waiting list for a future flight at the mid-Michigan hub alone, with hundreds more waiting at each hub across America. 

The next mid-Michigan honor flight is scheduled Oct. 11, 2023 from Traverse City. According to the organization’s website, 21,800 veterans were honored in 2022, with plans to send as many veterans as possible on future flights. 

Green encourages the public to come to those events, saying, “Not every veteran has someone to show up for them, so seeing that people recognize their service and support them means more than you’ll ever know.” 

Stephanie is a junior at MSU majoring in journalism with a concentration in photojournalism. She enjoys DIY crafts, working out and the gym and hanging out with her friends.