With Thanks for Their Service
Honor flights offer veterans a day of recognition
By Brenda Lange

From the moment he arrived at Williamstown High School last fall, Luis Torres, 81, felt overwhelmed by the sight of the school decked out in red, white and blue, and the smiles of hundreds of students there to honor him and dozens of his fellow military veterans. 

Torres served in Vietnam as a 1st class Staff Sergeant in the Army and was awarded a Silver Star for his service. On this day, he was joining two busloads of vets for a day in Washington, D.C., where they would be honored in ways they never expected. For some, it was the first time they were shown such respect.

“This trip was a special opportunity to support our father in finally getting to see the Vietnam War Memorial and pay his respects to his fallen comrades,” says Torres’ daughter, Sandra Butcher, who joined him for the trip.

“The welcome he received from the Honor Flight team and Williamstown High School was the one he never got on his return from Vietnam,” she says. “The entire trip was a truly memorable experience, and he was so grateful. The memories of his service in Vietnam will never leave him, but the trip provided some closure after so many years.”

“This trip is cathartic for many vets,” says Pam Pontano, who co-directs the South Jersey hub of Honor Flight, which leads the annual trips to D.C. “After every trip, we get calls and letters of thanks from the vets and their family members who say their loved one was so grateful for their day and that they had never talked about their experiences until after this trip.”

Just One Trip

Pam Pontano was a teacher at Williams-town High School in Gloucester County when she saw a program about the Honor Flight Network when the World War II Memorial opened in D.C. in 2004. 

“They interviewed veterans who all said the thing they wanted most was to visit the new memorial,” she says. Pontano then talked about the nonprofit with her students, who later ran a fundraiser that raised $500 for Honor Flight, which was started in 2005 to honor veterans, provide healing closure for these men and women, and enable them to reflect and bond with fellow veterans. 

Pam and her husband Ron, who co-directs the Honor Flight chapter with her, visited Washington and witnessed veterans’ reactions firsthand. Pam felt hosting a trip using the high school as a base and students as volunteers would be a good living history project for her classes. Her principal agreed.

“That’s how it started in 2008,” Pam says with a laugh. “I thought it was going to be just one trip.” That trip turned into 20 over two decades, and she is still amazed at the generosity of strangers, the interest of the students and the support from other veterans’ groups and businesses that donate food, flowers, money and more.

“So many good things have come from this. People have been so kind to us. The school’s commitment to supporting our efforts and the dedication of students, faculty, staff and administration has never wavered. Without them, we wouldn’t have an event.”

Pam and Ron are both retired now and have joined each of the hub’s trips, which generally include 100 vets. To date, 1,850 veterans have participated. The next trip is planned for April 2024.

The national organization comprises 124 independent hubs around the country whose primary function is to take aging veterans – from the years encompassing World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars – to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials, where they are also recognized for their service and get to share time and memories with other vets.

A day full of surprises

Interested veterans complete an application and can bring a guest – an adult child or grandchild, for example – who acts as their guardian to help with the physical parts of the day. The veteran has no fee; the guardian is charged $85. Pam can arrange for volunteers if necessary.

Buses leave the high school early, after the vets have been treated to breakfast and student entertainment in a cafeteria decorated with patriotic bunting, flags and even ice sculptures. 

“From the moment they leave the high school cafeteria until they cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge, we have numerous surprises in store,” says Pam. 

When the buses arrive in Washington, the group travels to the Air Force, Marine and World War II memorials, and then to the National Mall, where they can visit the Korean War and Vietnam Veterans memorials on their own. At the Vietnam Memorial, many participants search for their fallen comrades among the 58,000 men and women whose names are etched on the V-shaped, black granite wall. 

Sometimes the groups have witnessed silent drill platoon maneuvers, buglers or a 21-gun salute at one of the sites – a special treat. Once, a Black Hawk helicopter did a flyover for them.

World War II veteran Stanley Esposito, 96, served during World War II as a Navy petty officer, second class. The Manahawkin resident alternates between laughter and tears when recollecting his trip to Washington. 

“I loved everything about it,” he says, “it was the best day of my life.”   

January 2024
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