Taking Flight for Veterans
Honor Flight of the Cape Fear Area, a chapter of a national group that provides all-expenses trips to Washington to salute veterans and recognize the importance of their service, needs your help.
The pandemic messed with everyone’s plans, including local efforts to reinstate Honor Flights to Washington, D.C., in 2021 to honor Cape Fear-area veterans. Still, just like military leaders facing a mission in which failure isn’t an option, organizers Ruth Ravitz Smith and Kevin Parker won’t take no for an answer.
Smith and Parker are passionate volunteer leaders in the newly formed Honor Flight of the Cape Fear organization, a chapter of a national group that provides all-expenses honor flight trips to Washington to salute veterans and recognize the importance of their service. Group members are tackling the myriad tasks required to restore an ILM flight after a long absence.
They’re determined that a charter flight will ascend from ILM to give local vets a day they and their families will never forget. Just recently, as pandemic restrictions finally gave way, the national organization gave a “wings up” for a Wilmington flight on April 30, 2022.
Now the real work begins, which is why more volunteers must enter the picture.
“If you’ve ever been at the airport when the vets return, you’re just overcome with emotion,” Parker says. Tears, laughter and applause all mingle as passengers with no connection to the flight often join volunteer greeters as the line of veterans, some no longer able to walk on their own, pass through. (The author speaks from experience.)
That’s what motivated Smith, the founder and president of the Cape Fear chapter, when she encountered a group at Reagan National Airport as she awaited a flight to Connecticut. That drew her into the Honor Flight program, first as a greeter. Like many volunteers, she didn’t come from a military family, although her father was in the Air National Guard. The sacrifices of veterans simply spoke to her.
Plus, she says with a chuckle, “I went to a women’s college, Hood, in Frederick, Maryland, and dated midshipmen from the nearby U.S. Naval Academy.”
Fast forward to five years ago when she moved to Wilmington.
“I knew they had started an ILM flight, but then I learned the hub was no longer in existence,” she says. “I made a commitment that we’d get it restarted here.”
Drawing on her contacts, the result was the creation of a fully certified local hub, one of about 130 in the national Honor Flight network. The new flight will, for the first time, be open to Vietnam and Korea-era vets as well as older ones. Many Vietnam vets are well into their 70s now and might be in particular need of a warm greeting, as they returned to a sharply divided America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Parker notes, many Korea-era veterans didn’t get much of a homecoming either.
The Wilmington Honor Flight will work like this:
Up to 75 veterans and accompanying guardian-escorts will leave ILM early in the morning on a charter flight to Washington. Police-escorts will greet them as charter buses take them to various war and veterans’ monuments throughout the day. All expenses will be paid, including food, backpacks and t-shirts, and there will be an accompanying medical team and any medical equipment, wheelchairs and other mobility gear they may need to enjoy the trip. They can expect big send-offs and other surprises upon departure, arrival and return that night.
That can’t be done without lots of volunteers and monetary support. Guardians are asked to contribute $500 toward their direct expenses for the trip. A one-day honor flight costs around $100,000.
Parker, an IT specialist for Corning in Wilmington, is the Cape Fear chapter’s secretary. He first got involved with the original honor flight from Wilmington 10 years ago. For him, it’s about saying thanks and making memories for the vets.
The volunteers make lasting memories, too.
“I was a guardian on the second Wilmington flight,” Parker recalls. “Then it was three veterans per guardian, and I was responsible to take care of anything they needed, including travel to and from the airport and on the trip. I stayed close to those three vets for years. Two have since passed away. One family asked me to be a pallbearer. The impact on you lasts for years.”
Longer-term, the Cape Fear chapter is committed to making an ILM Honor Flight an annual event.
“The biggest advertisement will be when the vets return and see the airport welcome,” Parker says. “Nothing beats the airport return.”
How to support the 2022 Honor Flight from Wilmington
Honor Flight of the Cape Fear Area (HFCFA) is seeking both veterans and volunteers for their planned flight from ILM Airport on April 30, 2022. HFCFA also accepts tax-deductible contributions and donations from individuals and sponsors as each flight is estimated to cost about $100,000.
Volunteers are needed to join the flight as guardians and medical team members and to help in Wilmington on departure and return, which includes giving the vets a big welcome home after landing. Guardians are asked to contribute $500 to cover their airfare, meals and other expenses for the day.
If you know a Vietnam-era or older veteran in the Cape Fear region, including Brunswick County, who might be interested in going on the Wilmington flight, encourage them to contact Honor Flight or pass the veteran’s name along. Veterans go on the flights for free.
One of the complications created by the pandemic is that plans and dates are subject to change. Kevin Parker of the Honor Flight group stresses that shouldn’t stop folks from contacting them as soon as possible. Accommodations will be made if the date doesn’t fit someone’s schedule.
“If it turns out they can’t go, they can go on a future trip or get their money back,” Parker says.
Oak Island Navy vet looks forward to Honor Flight
To understand how much an Honor Flight can mean to a veteran, spend a few minutes talking to Bill Bruce of Oak Island.
Bruce, who was an Aviation Electrician 2nd Class in the years between the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, makes it a point to say that going on the flight isn’t just about recognizing his own service.
“My late father-in-law was with Gen. Patton through Italy into France,” he says. “I want to go to the World War II Memorial to honor him. And I have quite a bit of Navy in my family. My oldest brother is a retired chief in both Korea and Vietnam.”
Bruce, a Lumberton native, says he served from 1957 through 1964 and was part of transport flight crews in places such as Morocco, Spain and Pakistan. He transferred back to Norfolk, Virginia, and saw duty on the aircraft carriers USS Valley Forge and USS Randolph before going to the Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine.
After his military service, Bruce used his training in electronics to work as a contractor. He later taught future electricians at community colleges and also worked in Salem, Virginia, as the city’s electrical inspector. When he and his wife, JoAnn, first moved to the area, it didn’t take long for him to find work as Bald Head Island’s building inspector, a position he held for 10 years. He still does fill-in inspections for local communities.
Some of his flight crew work involved submarine hunting and other observations. He was on duty during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, in which the world stood on the precipice of nuclear war as President John F. Kennedy insisted that the Soviet Union remove nuclear-capable missiles from Cuba and ordered a shipping blockade. Bruce is certain they saw materials related to the missile installations bound for Cuba.
“They sent us to the Azores Islands to watch for Russian shipping,” he says. “The funniest thing was that we would fly about 50 feet over the Russian ships. The crew members on the ships would throw things at us.”