“And for some of these guys it’s the hardest thing for them to do, because some of them haven’t opened that door for 70 years.”
By Brandi Makuski
“This means so much to all the guys who get to go,” said Mike Thompson, as his eyes welled slightly. “It’s very important, what you guys do.”
Thompson, president of Never Forgotten Honor Flight, shared stories of past flights taking veterans to Washington, D.C. in a conference room at the Stevens Point Police Department on Monday. He told organizers of the local Guns & Hoses charity softball game, which included members of the city’s police and fire departments and Ministry St. Michael’s sports medicine department, about the impact on veterans who take the flight- which are only made possible by donations like the one he’d just received from the group.
“One of the most interesting parts of the game was, just before that first pitch from the veterans from all the different wars, was to hear them talking beforehand about when and where they served, and hearing the similarities in their stories,” said former Police Chief Kevin Ruder said. “I can only imagine what the discussion between veterans is like on the Honor Flight, having that commonality of war.”
Implemented locally by Ruder, who is now retired, the Guns & Hoses game has for two years raised a combined $73,000 for the Honor Flight. The exhibition charity game pits firefighters against the police department- a friendly rivalry in which firefighters bested the PD two years running.
That rivalry helps fuel public interest in supporting the flights, where veterans of all military conflicts are flown free of charge for a day of sightseeing in the nation’s capital. Veterans are taken on a guided tour of military monuments and war memorials constructed in their honor, and the day is typically emotional for all involved, Thompson said.
“It’s pretty important for the vets to do this trip; on the flight back you can hear how special it was for them,” Thompson said. “Some of the guys don’t think their service was anything special and it can be tough to get some of them to come out for this, they don’t think they deserved the recognition.”
While lately the organization is flying an increasing number of Vietnam War-era veterans, Thompson and others from Honor Flight are on a big push to get as many soldiers from WWI and WWII on the trip as possible because those veterans are in their twilight years.
“I tell these guys, ‘You guys are into your final chapter; you own history- you need to share that with your family and friends’. And for some of these guys it’s the hardest thing for them to do, because some of them haven’t opened that door for 70 years,” Thompson said. “But we hear over and over again from family members who say, ‘Dad’s talking about his time in service, things we never knew about’, and it’s amazing.”
“One of the most interesting parts of the [Guns & Hoses] game was, just before that first pitch with veterans from all the different wars, to hear them talking beforehand about when and where they served, and hearing the similarities in their stories,” Ruder said. “I can only imagine what the discussion between veterans is like on the Honor Flight, having that commonality of war.”
This year’s game brought in a total of $29,000, of which $6,000 was presented to Thompson this week for use towards upcoming Honor Flight events. The remaining $23,000 was donated to the Portage Co. veterans relief fund. Those funds were accepted by Ron MacDonald, commander of the Wisconsin Base of the United States Submarine Veterans, on behalf of the veteran services office.
But only a portion of the flight-bound veterans were wartime combatants. According to Thompson, for every one soldier on the front lines of a war, there are 11 support personnel standing behind them in the form of mechanics, truck drivers, cooks and mail delivery personnel, a sentiment MacDonald echoed.
“Don’t sit there and underestimate your service,” said MacDonald. “You provided an important service for an important period of time.”
To learn more about the Never Forgotten Honor Flight, or to donate, go to www.neverforgottenhonorflight.org.