As a journalist, I cover a ton of stories. So many, too many unfortunately become a blur. But on occasion, there are assignments that are not only unforgettable, but change you.
This was the case covering Utah’s first Honor Flight. Through community donations, dozens of the state’s WWII veterans got the chance to fly to Washington D.C. and see the memorial built for them. The men on this trip are walking history. They served on submarines in the Pacific, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, liberated Nazi death camps and even survived Pearl Harbor.
Most are over the age of 90 and their days are numbered. It will be our loss when we can only know their stories by reading them in textbooks. Sadder, is the thought of them never seeing how grateful we are for their service.
The Honor Flight is working to change that. In five years, it’s flown more than 100,000 veterans to see the breathtaking WWII Memorial. And what a sight for them. While there, nearly early every veteran could not hold back tears. This is a war that ended 70 years ago, but for them, the emotion is still very raw. Their memories are still very real. I bet most couldn’t tell you what they had for breakfast the day before, but when it comes to the war, WWII vets can recite specifics. Countless details on weapons and ammunition, names of tiny villages and the longitudes and latitudes of every place they went.
Of course, they’ll also tell you the names those who didn’t make it home.
We, as the generations after them, are eager to say thank you. After all, they not only saved our country from tyranny, but the world. Good luck trying to get them to take credit though. Talk about tough interviews to crack. I wanted to get the story behind one of the vet’s Bronze Star. I asked him three times to tell me the story. He would not open up. Even two of his relatives tried to coax it out of him, but to no avail. That’s their spirit. They’ll talk missions and missiles until your ears fall off, but don’t ever ask them about their medals. They’ll just tell you, “it’s nothing special,” “everyone was pitching in,” “I was just doing my job.”
What will stay with me most though is something none of them could hide. My grandpa, also a WWII vet, couldn’t hide it either. It’s a sweet, gentile way about these old vets. It’s more than the tears, which come easily, but the way they talk to you, look at you, touch your hand when they speak to you. It’s very human. Or, at least how humans should be. On more than one occasion, family members said “he never used to be like that,” he was a “tough military guy up until entering old age”.
What does that say about how we live our lives now? Do these guys know something we don’t about what matters? Those who've seen the ugliest side of humanity choose to live their final years exuding kindness and love. What would our daily lives be like if we could adapt that behavior now? A lesson, that's perhaps their final act of service to all of us.