Saying thank you: The history of the Indy Honor Flight

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Since 2012, the Indy Honor Flight has brought 1,260 veterans to Washington, D.C. to see their memorials.

It’s one of several honor flights offered for veterans across Indiana.

The honor flight is a free trip for veterans, and a way organizers say we can all say “thank you” to the greatest generation.

On Oct. 31, the Indy Honor Flight made its 14th and 15th flights to Washington, bringing 178 veterans to our nation’s capital.

“They’ve given us so much. This is the least we can do,” said Indy Honor Flight Chairman and Founder Grant Thompson.

Thompson started the Indy Honor Flight several years ago. He says he found himself visiting the World War II Memorial anytime he could while in Washington D.C on business. He wished his grandfather, a veteran who served in World War II, could have seen it before he passed away.

It was then, Thompson says, his wife suggested he take her great-uncle, also a veteran, to see the memorial in D.C.

“We went, and needless to say, it changed my life,” said Thompson. “The impact it had on him was incredible, to see the closure he got out of it.”

“It was just breathtaking to see the emotion, not just from him, but from strangers who would thank him,” he added. “It meant so much to him, but it also meant so much to me. I was able to honor my grandfather.”

Thompson said he came home in 2009 from that first flight and wanted to take another veteran.

“I went so far as to go to retirement homes to say, ‘Do you know any veterans I could take?’” Thompson said laughingly.

He did an online search and says he found the national Honor Flight network. He asked to sign up as a guardian, and they told him there was no hub in Indianapolis – only a waiting list. He decided there should be one.

“I did what anyone would do, get your friends and your family roped in,” he explained, smiling.

From that first flight in 2012, it took off.

“It’s incredible, the growth that we’ve seen, the lives it’s touched, the army of people involved, the way the country has embraced this,” said Thompson.

In just the last two years, they’ve taken six flights each year.

“When you get involved, you’ll never be the same. You’ll never forget what you’ll see, what you experience. It’s not just a trip: it’s a journey, it’s an experience. It’s a life-changing thing,” he explained.

It takes countless volunteers to make it happen. Trina Winegardner is just one volunteer who drives from Marion to help. 24-Hour News 8 found her among many others working on a Saturday to get everything ready for the veterans’ October trip.

“It’s just wonderful,” Winegardner said. She’s been volunteering since the third flight. “To see the gym that night (when the veterans return home), the families and friends and the little kids all waving flags — it’s just wonderful.”

Some people volunteer as guardians who go on the trip accompanying each veteran, staying with them throughout the day.

Medics are on each flight on the way there and back and in the buses once the vets get to D.C. Volunteers bring wheelchairs, jackets, gloves, blankets, food, water, drinks. You name it, they’re ready for it.

Surprises greet the veterans along the way, from a welcome at the airport in Washington, to “mail call” on the plane ride home.

“It was an amazing experience,” said one of the guardians on the trip. “The logistics of getting everyone here, the time and effort and love everyone puts into it, it was just amazing.”

The top priority right now is to get World War II veterans to their memorial. The need to find these vets and get to them to their memorials is more urgent every single day, says Thompson. The average age of World War II vets right now is 90. More than 600 WWII vets die each day.

Thompson encourages anyone who knows a vet in any capacity to give them an application and let them know the Honor Flight is looking for them.

“We are doing everything we can to get them out as soon as possible,” said Thompson. “They need to know what they did mattered. They’ll never be forgotten, and we are eternally grateful.”

The national honor flight network says they’ll then focus on getting Korean War and Vietnam War veterans to their memorials as well. Many Korean War veterans went on the Indy Honor Flight in October.

If you know any veterans who served in World War II, contact the Indy Honor Flight through their website here, or call 317-559-1600. You can also sign up there to donate or find ways you can help. The Indy Honor Flight is hosting ‘Dinner with a Hoosier Hero’ on Saturday, November 14.

24-Hour News 8 flew along with the Indy Honor Flight in October as veterans went to see their memorials.

You can see more of their stories on WISH-TV’s Daybreak at 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

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