Gary Stephens visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., during the fall 2018 Flag City Honor Flight. Stephens’s wife, Carol, wore a POW/MIA bracelet bearing the name of Air Force Major Charles Bifolchi, who was shot down in 1968. Bifolchi’s remains were found in 2006 and buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Carol wore the bracelet nonstop from the moment she received it until the day Bifolchi was buried. Then, when Gary went on his Honor Flight, Carol gave him that bracelet, along with a photo of Bifolchi and a letter she wrote to him, to place underneath Bifolchi’s name on the Wall. (Photo courtesy of Flag City Honor Flight)

By SARA ARTHURS
Staff Writer

With Tuesday’s flight to Washington, D.C., Flag City Honor Flight will have taken 1,000 veterans to see the memorials built in their honor.

The nonprofit organization is the Findlay-based hub of the Honor Flight network, which flies veterans free of charge to visit war memorials in Washington.

The World War II Memorial was dedicated in May 2004. The national Honor Flight organization began shortly afterward when Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force captain, began asking his World War II veteran patients at the Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield, Ohio, if they planned to see the memorial. Citing financial or physical concerns, many stated they were unable to make the trek. Morse, also a private pilot, offered to fly one veteran to see the memorial, which led to the formation of Honor Flight.

The Findlay effort started in 2009 with the veterans committee at the Elks, said Deb Wickerham, the agency’s executive director. The group’s founders thought, since there were so many veterans on the waiting list, why not start a hub in Findlay?

Seven Findlay veterans flew with a group from Dayton in 2010. The following year, Flag City Honor Flight gained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. It held its first flight that year, taking 78 veterans and their guardians.

Flag City Honor Flight offered one flight each year until 2016, when Gilmore Jasion Mahler held a fundraiser enabling two flights a year. The agency also takes veterans via bus trips, in partnership with 50 North. While once they took about 80 veterans each year, expanding the number of trips means it is now almost 200, Wickerham said.

The makeup of the flights has shifted to include more Korean and Vietnam War veterans, but the agency still hears from interested World War II veterans, as well.

While based in Findlay, Flag City Honor Flight does take veterans from throughout northwest Ohio, southeast Michigan and northeast Indiana.

Wickerham said Flag City Honor Flight is an “amazing team” and has many dedicated volunteers. Interest from donors and volunteers has increased, and while there is always a need for guardians to accompany veterans, there is sometimes a waiting list because so many people want to do so. (While veterans pay absolutely nothing, guardians are asked to make a tax-deductible donation to help with expenses.)

Veterans tell Wickerham that Honor Flight was the best day of their life.

And Vietnam War veterans have told her the experience “begins their healing.” One, on the bus trip, told her he had waited 50 years for this experience.

Veterans also tell her that if they had a nickel for every handshake they receive or “thank you” they hear during the day, they would be rich.

Wickerham said the best part of the day for her is to sit down and watch the veterans walking around the memorials, or to see the “overwhelming emotion” at the “welcome home” events.

In the beginning, the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation offered “great support” in the form of grants, Wickerham said. Other big sponsors include Gilmore Jasion Mahler, Marathon Petroleum Corp. and Ohio Logistics.

Seventy-eight veterans, plus guardians, will journey to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, including 20 World War II veterans. It’s the first of two 2019 flights, with the next scheduled for Sept. 24.

Participants will depart The Cube parking lot via bus at 4:30 a.m. with Findlay Police, Hancock County Sheriff and Legion Riders in escort. The entourage will travel to the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials, and will watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. The return flight will arrive in Toledo at Grand Aire Hangar at approximately 9:45 p.m., where a welcome home ceremony with family members and mail-call will follow. The caravan should arrive back in Findlay about midnight.

More information on how to get involved can be found at https://flagcityhonorflight.org/.

“We just look forward to taking at least another thousand,” Wickerham said.

 

Veterans recall experience as ‘lovely,’ ‘flabbergasting’

By SARA ARTHURS
Staff Writer

As of Tuesday’s flight, Flag City Honor Flight will have taken 1,000 veterans to visit their memorials in Washington, D.C.

Here are some of the reactions of those who went in past years:

Joe and Jeanne Costa, both Coast Guard veterans who served during World War II, flew in June 2011. The couple were then approaching their 65th wedding anniversary.

“Oh, just lovely, just lovely,” Joe said of the experience. “The people are so good, and I just can’t believe it.”

“They just cater to me like I’m president of the United States or something,” he said.

Brothers Walter and William Kramb, World War II veterans, also flew in June 2011.

William said he was particularly touched when other tourists approached him during the day and thanked him for his service.

“It’s kind of flabbergasting,” he said of the trip. “You think you haven’t done all that much … and then you’re honored. … It’s a great feeling.”

Also flying that trip was World War II veteran Dick Byerly. His guardian, Donald Stine, said on the plane home, “You shook hands with an admiral today,” a reference to one of the active duty military personnel who greeted the veterans at the Baltimore airport.

U.S. Navy Rear Admiral David H. Lewis was among the group of active personnel and said he was “humbled” to be there to greet World War II veterans.

“It’s to honor the veterans, the service. … They’ve really passed the baton on to us,” he said.

Byerly had previously visited Washington, D.C., but had not seen the World War II Memorial or the Air Force Memorial and said he was glad to see them.

In June 2016, Gay Jones was the only woman among the veterans traveling on the flight. But she said she and the male veterans found they had experiences in common.

“The whole day was a whirlwind,” the Korean War veteran said of Honor Flight.

And she said the Korean War memorial “kind of brought back memories” of her time processing records related to deceased officers. “That’s when it really hit home, when I saw that.”

When the veterans returned, they were greeted by a large group including many of their families, waving flags.

“Oh my gosh, it was full of people,” Jones said — including two of her young great-grandchildren, along with other family members. “They were so excited.”

Brothers Carl and Charles Gierke flew together in October 2018. Carl served in World War II and Charles in the Korean War era.

Carl said he was “really impressed” with the World War II Memorial. Charles was particularly impressed by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Charles said they were “treated like gold” throughout.

“They thought they were celebrities,” said Carl’s wife, Helen.

At “mail call” they received letters from local school children, as well as one of Carl’s grandsons. One letter he received from a young child said “God bless you. Have a good trip.” And a Vanlue High School freshman wrote, “Your service helped to make our country safe.”

Honor Flight was a 23-hour day, from 3 a.m. one day to 2 a.m. the next. But Charles’ daughter said her father stayed up even later, as he was still “wound up” after the trip. And Helen said of Carl, “I couldn’t shut him up.”

William Rowe of Findlay, who served in the Army in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, was interviewed by The Courier shortly before the June 2015 flight. He said he had been to Washington, D.C., “many years ago” but that was before the memorials were built, and what he was most looking forward to was “seeing them all.”

And he said it was evident that many volunteers were working to make Honor Flight possible for the veterans. “They haven’t forgotten us,” he said.

Joe Costa died Jan. 22, 2013, at age 87, and Jeanne died Sept. 16, 2015, at age 90.

William Kramb died May 8, 2017, at age 94.

Byerly died Jan. 23, 2018. He was 94.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
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Twitter: @swarthurs

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