Maria Haynes and Terry Sarley stood near the VIP arrival gate just before security inside Dulles International Airport, ready to welcome the special guests who would be landing soon. Friends since high school, the duo, now in their 60s, was decked out in T-shirts emblazoned with American flags and wearing red, white, and blue face masks. They carried flags.
Haynes and Sarley were two of more than 100 people waiting to welcome U.S. veterans from World War II, Vietnam, and Korea to DC through the Honor Flight Network. The national nonprofit offers veterans the chance to travel from across the nation, visit memorials, honor their fallen comrades, and reminisce, on a whirlwind day of touring in Washington — all free of charge.
“I started attending these events when a friend mentioned she participated and invited me to attend an event at Dulles last year,” says Haynes. “I was so moved by the reaction of the veterans as they came into the airport and heard our cheers and welcome messages.”
And on this weekday morning, as the welcoming committee expanded, the veterans from Iowa and Illinois arrived. There were almost 100 of them. Most were in their 70s and 80s, but one was a centenarian who served in World War II. The veterans slowly filed off the plane, some walking and many being pushed in wheelchairs. Each wore a gold T-shirt that read: “Our greatest national treasure is our military men & women.” They were met with thunderous applause as they made their way through a 200-foot-long receiving line.
The Linton Hall School Fife and Drum Corps from Bristow played “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” The Prince William County Joint Honor Guard presented colors. Parents and their young children held handmade welcome signs. Many, like Haynes and Sarley, waved flags. Veterans were hugged, patted on the back, and offered handshakes, as shouts of “Welcome!” and “Thank you for your service!” echoed in the expansive hall.
“They really appreciate a proper welcome home, and truly deserve one,” says Sarley, a Falls Church resident. “Any service member willing to fight for our country needs to be recognized.”
Why the Tears Flow
The Honor Flight Network brings veterans to DC by way of the region’s three major airports: Dulles, Reagan National, and Baltimore-Washington International. More than 260,000 veterans have traveled from 124 hubs nationwide over the 17 years the organization has existed.
“Just seeing them coming off the plane, they just don’t have a clue what is in store for them,” says Jenny Brawley, DC support liaison for the Honor Flight Network. “So many of them are in tears because they just don’t realize that people care.”
Committed volunteers take on a variety of roles to pull off Honor Flight events. At hubs across the country, funds are raised throughout the year to cover costs for chartering flights, food, and all fees associated with the generally daylong trip for veterans. Volunteer chaperones are assigned to the veterans to cater to their needs for the day, and volunteer medical personnel travel with each group.
“I feel like we all get more [out of it] than the veterans get because it’s so gratifying to see how much it means to them,” says Colleen Scallion, Honor Flight coordinator for Dulles.
An Overdue Welcome
Annapolis, Maryland, resident Patty Cary usually volunteers at BWI when the Columbus, Ohio, Honor Flight Network veterans visit, but she stepped up to serve at DCA for a recent Thursday morning arrival. Her grandfather was a World War II veteran, which motivated her to volunteer. At DCA, Cary distributed gate passes for her fellow volunteers to go through TSA and greet the 86 arriving vets — including one who served in World War II, five in the Korean War, and 80 in the Vietnam War — as they stepped off the plane.
“I think the most moving are the Vietnam veterans — they had such an ugly, ugly welcome when they came home,” says Cary. “To see their faces here when they arrive, not expecting the greeting they’re gonna get here of cheering crowds, much less at the memorials; I love it.”
‘We Appreciate What They Do’
Typically, tours visit Arlington National Cemetery as well as the Vietnam Memorial, Korean Memorial, and World War II Memorial. For those service members who fought in each of those conflicts, the experience can be significant. Often, other tourists visiting the sites approach the veterans and thank them for their service.
“While the entire day was a memorable experience, the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was the most humbling and moving [part] to me,” says veteran Mark Gearhart, a U.S. Navy Torpedoman’s Mate Third Class from 1972 to 1976. “Realizing the dignity of those who lost their lives but were unidentified and didn’t have a proper thank you and farewell for their ultimate sacrifice.”
Air Force veterans Bill and Joyce Evans, from Johnstown, Ohio, recalled a touching moment during their tour at the National Mall that day. As veterans passed by, a group of children greeted them with fist bumps, high fives, and words of thanks. Throughout the trip, those moments brought the team and volunteers nothing but smiles.
“One thing stood out: There was purposeful focus on the veterans. There were signs of thanks and well wishes all around,” says Bill. “I hope they know how much we appreciate what they do.”
A Way to Say Thanks
The Honor Flight Network has volunteer opportunities to fit every schedule. Greeters who welcome the 22,000 veterans arriving annually are the organization’s volunteer entry point. Sports teams, scout troops, retirement communities, and marching bands have joined the throngs of people welcoming the veterans.
“We started taking a bus up there, and they love it,” says Bella Rogerson, transportation director for Westminster at Lake Ridge senior living community. Rogerson says many of the seniors she brings to welcome the flights are retired military and enjoy donating their time to connect with other veterans.
Clifton resident Allison Turner brought her daughters, 8-year-old Caroline and 6-year-old Hannah. The Girl Scouts made elaborate signs and beamed as they took a photo with the 100-year-old World War II veteran who was seated in his wheelchair.
“By just showing up and cheering, you can bring so much joy to someone,” Turner says. “I also wanted to go to show our Girl Scout troop that this is a small way we can show our thanks to our military.”
People interested in greeting veterans when they arrive or depart from the airports can sign up on each location’s Honor Flight website to get instructions from organizers. Dulles, staff noted, is the easier of the two Virginia airports at which to volunteer because parking is free for volunteers. Events involve a two- to three-hour commitment, by the time greeters reach the assigned area and the veterans arrive. Volunteers can sign up for flights that arrive weekdays or Saturdays.
Volunteers say veterans deserve the respect and recognition.
“They’re so humble — they just think they did what needed to be done, and they all tell me it was a privilege to serve their country,” says Rogerson. “They don’t ever want to say, ‘I’m a hero’ — but they are.”