Three awe-inspiring days: Permian Basin Honor Flight

Three awe-inspiring days: Permian Basin Honor Flight

The veterans were instructed to arrive at the airport at 4:30 a.m., so of course a number of them were there by 4. As it goes for veterans, when you’re early, you’re on time, and when you’re on time, you’re late.

Good news is the 11th Permian Basin Honor Flight that departed from Midland International Air & Space Port on May 2, 2024, was on time. And like all Honor Flights before it, the journey was also about time.

Throughout the year, local volunteers who run the Permian Basin Honor Flight organization raise funds to send veterans from the Permian Basin on an all-inclusive, three-day trip to Washington D.C., where they visit memorials in their honor. To date, over 1,000 local veterans have been gifted the trip. The powerful experience evokes cheers, tears and a diverse array of heart-warming expressions of gratitude from passersby throughout their journey.

“The experience is life-changing for the deserving veterans who helped defend our nation and way of life.”

Most importantly, the experience is life-changing for the deserving veterans who helped defend our nation and way of life.

I work as a Senior Root Cause Analysis Advisor at Chevron based in Midland. I became inspired to become an Honor Flight volunteer after meeting Cassie Gerety, a Midland resident who owns and operates Domino’s restaurants across West Texas. Gerety’s father and brother, both veterans, went on past Honor Flights. The experience positively changed their lives, particularly that of Gerety’s brother, who’d suffered from depression and disability from his experiences in the Vietnam War.

After talking with my colleagues about the Honor Flight, Chevron became a regular supporter of the organization. We’re among a growing number of local individuals, companies and organizations aiming to provide an experience like no other to veterans of the Permian Basin. Which is exactly what veterans received on the latest Honor Flight.

Make way for the heroes

Shortly before the latest Honor Flight was scheduled to take off on Day 1, passengers on a Dallas-bound flight were visibly dismayed after learning their flight was delayed. Until they learned why.

Their plane needed to be temporarily relocated from its gate to make way for the chartered Honor Flight. When the delayed passengers noticed the veterans, who ranged in age from their early 60s to late 90s, their attitude quickly shifted to gratitude. Andrew McElroy, a bagpiper accompanying the Honor Flight proceeded to entertain them with his exceptional skills on the bagpipes.

Veterans of the Honor Flight have all meals and accommodations covered on the trip, often thanks to the generosity of sponsors that include local businesses. Corporal Ray’s provided free coffee prior to takeoff, while Chick-fil-A supplied breakfast. The MCM Fundome in Odessa hosted a kickoff dinner the previous evening. Among the Honor Flight’s major sponsors this year include Chevron, Domino’s, Industrial Air, Dora Roberts Foundation, MCM Grand Hotel FunDome, and JC Ferguson Foundation to name a few.

On the chartered flight to D.C., letters written by local children were distributed to the veterans, thanking them for their service. There wasn’t a dry eye on that plane as those letters were read.

Upon arrival at Dulles International Airport, the veterans were welcomed as if they were the Beatles. Roughly 300 people of all ages lined up to cheer them on as they exited their flight. Plenty of high-fives exchanged between the kids and vets.

Such moments continued when the group reached the World War II Memorial, their first of many stops in D.C. Buses transporting the veterans parked about 200 yards from the entrance to the amphitheater. At about the same time, two buses unrelated to the Honor Flight dropped off dozens of tourists nearby. Those tourists noticed the large group of veterans and spontaneously lined the pathway to honor them. Emotions ran high as the bagpiper played and the veterans made their way past the grateful tourists to and from the memorial.

Next stop was the Korean Veterans War Memorial to lay a wreath. The Honor Flight group included five veterans who served in the Korean War. While there, a group of Korean Army officers arrived to pay their respects at the memorial. The officers requested the bagpiper and trumpeter who played taps for the Honor Flight veterans to play something for them, which they did.

The veterans were then off to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where one of the Honor Flight’s veterans needed help adding a name to a plaque memorializing someone he knew. The name was too high up on the wall to be reached, but a young man from a separate and unrelated tour offered to help. Members of the Honor Flight hoisted the Good Samaritan up on their shoulders so he could add the name to the plaque.

Paying respects

The following morning at the hotel, breakfast was scheduled for 6:30 a.m. So of course, veterans had arrived by 6:00.

Day 2 started off with a visit to The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, one of the newer memorials. It’s impressive and was particularly impactful to Honor Flight veterans who suffer from disability.

Next stop was the Navy Memorial, where a separate ceremony was ongoing for the USS Jenkins, a WWII-era barracks ship that had been decommissioned for a number of years. Survivors who served on the ship attended the memorial. Honor Flight veterans appreciated hearing the stories being told.

From there, the Honor Flight crew was off to Section 60 of the Arlington National Cemetery to lay another wreath. A particularly solemn burial ground, Section 60 honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice in recent wars including Iraq and Afghanistan. About a half-dozen members of this year’s Honor Flight represented Gold Star families. A presentation was made in their honor.

The never-tiring veterans then visited the Military Women’s Memorial for another presentation, this time honoring six women veterans who boarded the Honor Flight. One of them served in a medical capacity in Afghanistan and is now a doctor.

Then came the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where veterans watched the changing of the guard. The guards involved in the frequent ceremony were quite apparently aware that the Honor Flight veterans were present. While the guards could not break from procedure to shake hands with the veterans, they had an unspoken method of expressing their gratitude. During their procession, multiple guards made scraping sounds on the ground with the bottom of their boots, a gesture of respect for the veterans in their presence.

Day 2 continued with visits to the tombstone of Audie Murphy, the Texan known as the most highly decorated soldier in American history, and also the Iwo Jima Memorial, where former Marines in the group sang the Marine Corps hymn. Passersby stopped to listen to their singing and thanked them afterward. The packed day rounded out with trips to the National Museum of the U.S. Army.

For many veterans, these historic sites can be triggering. For that reason, a VA counselor joins the Honor Flight to support those who may suffer from flashbacks or emotional distress.

After visiting the Army museum, it was back to the hotel for dinner, awards and live music. While the party went late, the veterans were still up early the third and final day to bus out to the memorial at the Pentagon. They then visited the U.S. Air Force Memorial, followed the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va. and the National Air and Space Museum, the last stop before the flight home.

Honoring service

At the airport, the Honor Flight group was again greeted with cheers by a couple hundred of their fans. An even larger crowd welcomed them back at Midland airport. These folks took time from their day to line up outside the gates to clap for the veterans.

Memorable, humbling, and emotional are some words used to describe the Honor Flight experience. It’s awe-inspiring to veterans that people would do this for them. Before the flight even landed, staff at the Honor Flight were already busy planning for the next flight.

If the all-volunteer organization could afford to book another Honor Flight in a month’s time, they’d consider it. They already have 100 deserving veterans lined up to go right now. Funding is the main obstacle, but the Honor Flight’s staff are dedicated to the cause. A number of them are relatives of veterans who have been on the journey and also described the experience as life changing.

Lynn Smith, whose husband Tommy is a veteran, said, “It’s an honor to serve those who served.”

Wesley Smith wrapped up the experience eloquently:

“Flight #11 was one for the books, just as the first 10 were in their own right.”

Each and every trip for us team members, always seems like we have never been before. They are that special individually.

The heroes we get to meet and stories we get to hear is something that you will never learn in history books. It’s history right from the source. I personally feel that it’s important for civilians and younger veterans as well ask to hear our WWII, Korean and Vietnam era veterans their story. When all said and done, it just might lead to a time of healing for that veteran that lived it.

As this year’s flight director, with our board’s approval, the decision was made that after 10 years, we would make some major changes. We chose to fly into Dulles International to place us closer to the DC area than BWI in Baltimore did since charter flights from Midland/Odessa are not accepted into Regan. With that change also came a change to our complete itinerary for the 3 days. I wanted to tackle the task to get our veterans to more memorials and museums than ever before all while spending less time on the busses. I have to say, it was a complete success but never would have been without the outstanding volunteer team members and hero veterans following directions and request all 3 days.

It takes all year for raising the funds and the planning and scheduling this trip and it can’t be done without a fantastic board and an unbelievable dedication from volunteer team members. I’m so honored and blessed to be a small part of this group and our mission.

This is the best thing I have ever been a part of. I love serving those who have already served us.”

How to support the Honor Flight

While they’ve lined up sponsorships from Chevron, Domino’s, Industrial Air, Dora Roberts Foundation, MCM Grand Hotel FunDome, the Permian Basin Honor Flight is always seeking additional sources of funding that will get more flights off the ground, and more veterans recognized before it is too late.

Veterans interested in boarding an 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.