Welcoming Maine's Honor Flight: A Tribute to the Sacrifice of our Veterans

Sen. Susan M. Collins

It is the American character to answer the call of duty. It also is the American character to be grateful to those who answer that call. On Veterans Day, we express that gratitude with school assemblies, parades, and ceremonies. Every day of the year, citizens here in Maine and across America join together in countless ways to support and thank those who serve.

One has only to look at the Troop Greeters, who have greeted more than a million troops at the Bangor Airport, to know how much the people of Maine value our service members. They treat our veterans with generosity and a spirit of caring, welcoming them back to our country on planes that arrive at all hours of the day and night.

A truly remarkable demonstration of this spirit is Honor Flight, a nationwide non-profit organization that transports veterans free of charge to Washington, D.C., so that they can visit and reflect at the memorials that commemorate their service. Since its founding in 2004, more than 180,000 veterans from 42 states have come to our nation’s capital through the generosity and compassion of Honor Flight and its many supporters – that includes nearly 21,000 last year alone.

This June, I had the great pleasure to welcome 26 Maine veterans, who had come to Washington through an Honor Flight, at the World War II Memorial. My father is a World War II veteran who visited the Memorial when it was dedicated, and it was so inspiring to join those Maine heroes at the Memorial honoring their service.

Many of the visitors at the World War II Memorial that morning thanked the Maine veterans for their service. In a moving tribute, as the veterans made their way to the Memorial, members of the public spontaneously lined up on both sides of the walkway and gave them a round of applause.

At another stop during their weekend tour, the Maine veterans visited Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where, during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key saw the American Flag still flying the morning after a battle and was inspired to write “The Star Spangled Banner.” At the fort, the Maine veterans were joined by young students from California to unfurl an enormous 30-by-42-foot flag, identical to the one that withstood the battle. It is so encouraging to know that our young people respect and honor our veterans.

As I travel throughout our great state, I see again and again an important quality among our veterans – they continue to serve long after their days in uniform come to an end. In civic affairs, community projects, and charities, our veterans step forward, giving back when they already have given so much.

That quality of continuing to serve led to the forming of the Honor Flights. In 2004, when the World War II Memorial was dedicated, Earl Morse was a retired Air Force Flight Surgeon working at a VA center in Ohio. After learning that many of his patients dearly wanted to visit the Memorial but could not, due to the cost or health issues, he took action. Joined by five other volunteer private pilots, he led a squadron of six small planes that flew 12 Ohio veterans to Washington in May of 2005.

As demand grew, so did volunteerism and financial support, and Earl’s project soon was able to use commercial flights. By the end of 2005, 137 Ohio veterans had been transported to Washington, and Jeff Miller, a son of a veteran from North Carolina, worked with Earl to make the Honor Flight Network a national endeavor.

From air fare, ground transport, meals, and lodging to medical staff and wheelchairs, everything is provided at no cost to the veterans. It is noteworthy that in 2015, the first all-female Honor Flight was held, with 140 women veterans visiting Washington. And the people of Maine should be proud to know that Earl Morse relocated to our state four years ago and now serves our veterans at the VA clinic in Bangor.

While Mainers join all Americans in honoring our veterans every day, we also take time to pay tribute to them on Veterans Day, one of the most sacred days on our nation’s calendar. The origin of Veterans Day is well known: it commemorates the moment when the guns of the First World War fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in the year 1918. It marks not conquest, but peace earned through valor and sacrifice.

It is estimated that some 48 million Americans have served in uniform since the founding of our nation. Today, more than 22 million veterans live among us, more than 127,000 right here in Maine. To put that in perspective, Maine has more veterans per capita than all but two of the other states in the country. We are proud of our state’s contributions to protecting our nation.

Those numbers are impressive not only because of their sheer size, but also because they describe the history of a people united by the highest ideals of humanity. Those numbers are not cold statistics. Each one tells a story of courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty.

Those virtues echo throughout American history, so it is appropriate that Veterans Day now honors all who have defended our nation. Whether they serve in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, or the Merchant Marines, whether they serve in the active duty forces, the National Guard, or the Reserves, patriotic men and women pay the price of our freedom in times of conflict, and they are our shield in times of peace.

The sacrifices made by veterans, those who serve today, and their families are great, and we owe them so much. As a Senator, I am committed to ensuring that these patriots receive the health care, rehabilitation services, education, and employment opportunities they have earned. As an American, I share the gratitude and respect that is exemplified in such wonderful programs that honor veterans’ service and sacrifice like the Honor Flights.