Area veterans spend the day together, touring the monuments in Washington, D.C., during a trip sponsored by Honor Flight Pittsburgh. The 100% volunteer nonprofit, founded in Pittsburgh in 2016, is part of a national organization that began in 2005 (Herald-Standard photo).
By Katherine Mansfield
What began as a short trip to Washington, D.C., has blossomed into a nonprofit that serves area veterans in a sentimental, meaningful way.
In 2013, George Pry, founder and president of Honor Flight Pittsburgh, and his wife, Maria, took Maria’s grandfather to the nation’s capital to receive an award from the French government for service during World War II. Following the awards ceremony, the Pry family visited the D.C. memorials.
“(My grandfather-in-law) saw another gentleman wearing a hat from the same 4th Armored Division that he was in. They never met before, but they were from the same unit. They started talking,” said George Pry.
Three hours later, the veterans were still swapping stories, enjoying the company of someone with similar experiences.
When Pry’s grandfather-in-law died, Pry thanked the Honor Guard for attending the funeral and asked if anyone present had been down to see the memorials in D.C.
“Every one of them said no, they’d never had a chance to go,” said Pry. “I said, I know there’s this organization that does this stuff. We looked into it and found out there was no Pittsburgh branch. The closest Honor Flight was Cleveland.”
So Pry set to work, officially bringing Honor Flight to Pittsburgh in 2016. Twice annually, the nonprofit, comprised solely of volunteers, takes two to three deluxe motor coaches filled with area WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans to Washington, D.C., where vets spend the day visiting memorials, sharing stories and, sometimes, educating younger generations.
“What stands out the most to me is the tremendous amount of support from all kinds of people,” said Pry. “You’ll see kids of all ages, adults of all ages, greet and show total respect to these veterans. (One time), there was a big protest going on in D.C. A bunch of the young adults were walking by with these signs. As soon as they saw this group of veterans sitting there or walking around the memorials, all of a sudden they put their signs down, walked over and thanked the veterans. A group of 10 college-aged students, sitting there and talking to this group of veterans. They fight for us to have the rights we have. That’s why they went, to keep the United States of America exactly what it is.”
Pry said for many veterans, particularly those who fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, the return home was without fanfare. Honor Flight Pittsburgh plans for veteran organizations, local ROTC groups, fire and police departments to be on-site when the nonprofit’s buses return home from D.C., to give a warm welcome and genuine thanks to those who served.
“We all think that they had that great welcome home. You think of the ticker-tape parade (in New York) that you’ve seen pictures of. Most of them didn’t have that. Most of them got a quick hug. I’ve heard story after story where veterans came home and didn’t have a ride back from the airport or the train station,” said Pry. “Our mission is to make sure that any and every American war veteran has an opportunity to see the memorials built in their honor, completely free of charge to them. If people are willing to be there when we bring these veterans home, to give them the welcome they never experienced, I think that would be wonderful.”
Honor Flight Pittsburgh is in need of a welcome home committee of sorts, to greet veterans when they get off the bus at home after a day in Washington, D.C. The nonprofit is also seeking guardians to accompany veterans on their trip to D.C., where they spend the day with a small group as the men and women heal at WWII, Korean and Vietnam memorials. Guardians are required to cover the cost of their trip, to ensure all money fundraised for and donated to Honor Flight Pittsburgh goes directly to the veterans themselves. Those interested may sign up to be a guardian online.
The nonprofit is also in need of monetary donations to cover the cost of trips, snacks for enjoying on the long bus ride, and lunch at the monuments.
War veterans interested in road-tripping to D.C. with Honor Flight Pittsburgh may complete an application online.
The trips to D.C. are at the moment limited to veterans who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, but will be expanded to include those who served in Iraq, when that monument is completed, said Pry. The trips are important; they give veterans a chance to sit with memories, work them out, and heal.
“It’s a special time for them to just step back and let them visit the names on the wall,” he said.
Katherine Mansfield is a reporter for the Herald-Standard of Uniontown, Pa. Helping the Helpers is a joint effort of the Herald-Standard and the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Readers may email her at [email protected].
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