Permian Basin Honor Flight changing lives, 100 veterans at a time

Cassie Gerety can’t help but become emotional when talking about her experiences volunteering for the Permian Basin Honor Flight (PBHF). It’s understandable given what the Honor Flight did for her father and brother, not to mention hundreds of other veterans.

The PBHF gifts veterans of WWII and the wars in Korea and Vietnam with all-inclusive three-day trips to Washington D.C. There, they visit the memorials in their honor and are celebrated by everyone from their families to passing tourists and schoolchildren on field trips. The experience is powerful and in some cases life changing for both veterans and the volunteers who take part in the Honor Flight.

“When we first arrive there, it’s tears from the get go,” said Gerety, a Midland resident who owns and operates Domino’s restaurants across West Texas. “Everyone is stopping and shaking their hands and thanking them. And that can be off-putting to the Vietnam veterans, at first, but it happens from the time they get to Baltimore. They’re getting the welcome home they never got.”

On May 18, 2023, the PBHF will embark on its 10th mission to honor veterans in Washington D.C. The annual chartered flight will transport roughly 100 local veterans, meaning the PBHF will eclipse 1,000 veterans served this year.

“My brother came back [from the Honor Flight] a completely different man.”

The all-volunteer run program is part of the Honor Flight Network, a national nonprofit established in 2005. It began with individuals flying out four or five WWII veterans on small planes to see the WWII Memorial that had just been built, according to Wesley E. Smith, a PBHF volunteer and employee of Warren CAT in Midland. From there, the Honor Flight expanded, much thanks to a gentleman in North Carolina who carried out the first chartered flight, Smith said.

The PBHF was established in 2013, and after organizing and fundraising, its first chartered flight took off in 2014.

Gerety was on that flight with her father. It was an eye-opening experience with a hero who rarely spoke with his daughter about his war experiences. She would later convince her brother, impacted by depression and disability from his experiences in the Vietnam War, to take the Flight.

“My brother came back [from the Honor Flight] a completely different man,” she said. “He goes out, he plays poker, has friends, engages. That never happened before. The whole family was like, What the heck did you do to Don? It was just getting him what he never got.”

Cassie Gerety’s father and brother, both veterans, participating in the Permian Basin Honor Flight.

Fellow longtime PBHF volunteer Kathy Swindler shared a powerful story about a 100-year-old veteran and a Gold Star father who embarked on PBHF’s second mission. The veteran was also a Gold Star father who had lost his brother in WWII and his son in Vietnam. He “got to see his son’s name on the wall for the first time,” Swindler said.

“Probably my most emotional experience, however, is landing in Baltimore,” Swindler added. “When those guys get off that plane, especially the Vietnam veterans, the look in their eyes. They’re just not used to everyone cheering and waving flags. And you see the tears coming down their faces, and I’m balling.”

Smith’s first trip was with his father, Tommy, who always wanted to see the Vietnam Memorial Wall, which started a journey of healing for him. Tommy is now a team member at PBHF.

Wesley Smith recalled a separate story about a WWII veteran named MJ Dinkins, currently 99 years old, who served in the Pacific Theatre and who boarded the PBHF mission in 2017. While on the bus ride to the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in D.C., Dinkins was informed that the museum had on exhibition the Enola Gay, which is the B-29 Bomber that had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6, 1945. Dinkins turned white and “started losing tears” when hearing this, Smith said. On that fated day in Aug. 6, 1945, Dinkins was on the island with the Enola Gay, and had placed his hand on her and wished her well prior to her takeoff.

“He thought the plane was scrapped,” Smith said. “He didn’t even know it was in the Smithsonian.”

During their Honor Flight, Smith and volunteers got to wheel Dinkins up in a wheelchair to the Enola Gay, where he reached up and placed his hand on it once again.

“And he said, ‘I got to see my baby again. My trip is complete,’” Smith said.

The PBHF currently operates one trip per year, but volunteers hope to add more flights to honor as many veterans as possible before they are no longer able to travel. One challenge is making sure veterans and their loved ones are aware of the program so they can benefit. The other challenge is securing the financial means to ensure all honored veterans travel for free. PBHF often finds volunteers from veterans and loved ones who had transformative experiences on their Honor Flight, according to Gerety.

“There’s no reason we can’t do two flights per year, we’ve done it before,” she said.

That effort will take additional donors, which with the power of the experience PBHF volunteers see as very achievable.

Among the PBHF’s current supporters is Chevron, a company that hires many veterans locally and throughout the nation.

Last year, Todd Ockert, Senior Root Cause Analysis Advisor based at Chevron in Midland, met Gerety at a Wine & Wings event at the Commemorative Air Force headquarters in Midland. After that talk, Ockert was inspired to coordinate with colleague Jonathan Harshman, a locally-based public and government affairs advisor for Chevron, on ways to support the PBHF. That recently led to a check presentation at Chevron’s Midland offices.

Ockert said networking at the Chevron campus led to further ideas on how the company can support the PBHF’s mission. Among those ideas, Ockert said, was pitching the story to Permian Proud, which is sponsored by Chevron, to both raise awareness about this important sponsorship opportunity and to also inform veterans who might not be aware about the opportunity to be honored on the flight.

“There’s probably a lot of veterans who don’t know anything about the Permian Basin Honor Flight or the Honor Flight Network in general,” Ockert said. “It’s worth exploring anything we can do to help them and get the word out about the good work they’re doing for veterans.”

Veterans interested in boarding the Permian Basin Honor Flight, or those interested in informing veterans they know about the program, can visit the Honor Flight’s website here and its application page here. The website’s homepage also includes an option to donate to the Honor Flight’s important mission. You can also donate to the Honor Flight by scanning this QR code with your cellphone’s camera: