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Column: 'Honor Flight' reminder of mortality


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Just a few minutes of a trailer for the 2012 movie “Honor Flight” was enough to bring tears to my eyes and a catch in my throat.

I saw old men, several of them infirm, receive a treatment usually reserved for royalty and rulers. As they walked or were wheeled down airport corridors, large crowds parted to clear an aisle, each of those in the crowd clapping or raising their hands in salute. The looks on the faces of those old men were of pure joy tinged with a touch of humility.

They were passengers on an honor flight, a journey organized for veterans of World War II, which took them to Washington, D.C., for a visit to the memorial dedicated to their generation and the horrific conflict in which they served.

 

It is a short journey, starting early in the morning and ending later in the same day, but it is an emotional one, for them and those of us who still salute their service.

This particular flight was captured for a film. It is one of dozens of such flights that occur every year. They are sponsored by the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit organization set up solely for the purpose of honoring our older veterans. There are also flights for those who were in the Korean War, taking them to the Korean War Memorial in Washington.

Preference is given to the oldest veterans, especially those with terminal illnesses who are still able to fly.

“Honor Flight” is coming to Columbus. It will be shown free of charge at 3 p.m. Monday at YES Cinema. Doors open at 2 p.m. The target audience is older veterans and their families. Tickets can be picked up in advance at the theater or at Our Hospice of South Central Indiana. Volunteers will be on hand at the hospice center from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. today and Friday. Our Hospice is also the primary sponsor of the film.

The showing of the film in Columbus has a dual purpose. Undoubtedly, it will have the same emotional impact on the audience as it did on me. There is a more practical reason for seeing this film and hearing the message that goes with it.

Difficult a subject as it is to broach at any kind of gathering, “Honor Flight” is a reminder that the old men for whom so many have applauded are approaching the last days of their lives. It is a reality that many find difficult to confront or to be prepared for.

“It’s only been in recent years that hospice organizations have begun to recognize the special needs of veterans,” said Mendy Blair, manager of community relations at Our Hospice of South Central Indiana. “At the same time we have found that so many veterans are unaware that they might be eligible for services such as we provide.”

Our Hospice is not using the film as a sales pitch for the nonprofit organization. It is instead trying to make veterans aware that they and their loved ones can be helped through this final chapter in their lives.

There are two avenues that are open to veterans, through hospice programs offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and by Medicare.

Vickie Mueller, who lives near the Brown-Bartholomew county line, was able to arrange for her 86-year-old father, William Dowden, to receive care from the Our Hospice staff in his residence at Parkside Court through Medicare.

“They come in and bathe him and supervise his medications,” said the daughter of the central Indiana native who was stationed in the South Pacific with the U.S. Army in the last days of World War II. “It’s allowed him to maintain a measure of independence and has lifted a tremendous burden from those of us who have been his caregivers.”

The same benefits can be available through Veterans Affairs to those who have served, but Blair notes that there are many who don’t take advantage of them, either because they’re unaware of the programs or choose not to avail themselves of them.

“That’s why we want to use this film to at least give some people information about their eligibility for these programs,” Blair said.

Because so many World War II and Korean veterans are dying at an increasing rate, hospice organizations have come to realize that they have special needs. One is the need to talk to someone who understands what they have gone through, who might have gone through many of the same experiences themselves.

“We have heard so many times from family members that their loved ones just won’t share with them their experiences in service,” Blair said. “On the other hand, we’ve come to understand that they will talk with other veterans.”

That’s why Our Hospice hopes that veterans will step forward to be part of a volunteer group — individuals who will give their time to visit and talk with veterans.

A model for this kind of volunteer would be Owen “Dale” Stickles, an Air Force veteran and 20-year volunteer with Our Hospice. In that span, Stickles has filled a number of roles. Some of them would bring him in contact with fellow veterans.

“You try to entertain them a little bit ... try to talk about something they like to talk about,” he said in an interview last year.

The staff at Our Hospice hopes that more people like Stickles will come forward, veterans who have been there, who can relate and understand what another veteran is experiencing.

“We don’t expect them to be counselors or anything like that,” Blair said. “Basically, we want someone with whom another veteran can feel comfortable, be able to talk to.”

That’s pretty little to ask for those who gave so much.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at harry@therepublic.com.

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