GREENFIELD — Living more than 550 miles away from the nation’s capital, World War II veteran Ray Crickmore didn’t think he’d ever have the chance to see the monuments dotting the National Mall in Washington.
He traveled the world with the U.S. Navy in World War II and the Korean War, but as time ticked by, he’d come to terms with not seeing the structures honoring his and thousands of others’ service.
That changed last month when Crickmore climbed aboard a plane manned by volunteers dedicated to treating veterans to a free trip to the capital as part of the Honor Flight, a national organization devoted to taking former soldiers, sailors and airmen to see the monuments built in their honor.
The Indianapolis chapter recently announced it will ramp up the effort, taking two planes of veterans each time, as many of the aging World War II vets have reached their 90s and soon might be unable to fly. To do so, the organization needs more volunteers to help and more veterans to register for the daylong tour.
Through the years, dozens of Hancock County residents have taken the flight or volunteered to help with one. They say becoming involved with the group is an unmatched experience.
“It’s not paying it forward; it’s paying it back,” said Ron Cress of New Palestine, who volunteered on a recent flight. “I hope we can get all of them there eventually because they deserve it.”
Honor Flight started as a way to celebrate World War II veterans but has expanded to include Korean War, Vietnam War and any terminally ill veterans. The Indy Honor Flight program has taken 13 planes and more than 1,000 veterans on trips in the three years since the chapter formed, founder Grant Thompson said.
The group organizes two trips in the spring and fall, Thompson said. Until recently, only one plane was taken during each trip, but the group has committed to taking two planes packed with veterans from now on, he said.
The reason? The vets are running out of time, Thompson said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimated about 640 World War II veterans die each day, according to the national Honor Flight website.
To make sure each one gets a chance to see the national memorials dedicated to their service, organizers said they need to spread the word about the flights and the application process so more veterans and volunteers will sign up.
Those interested in taking the Honor Flight can visit the Indy Honor Flight website at indyhonorflight.com to download an application. The organization defines eligible veterans as anyone, male or female, who served actively in any location during the following years:
World War II: Dec. 7, 1941, to Dec. 31, 1946
Korean War: June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953
Vietnam War: Feb. 28, 1961, to May 7, 1975
The flights are made possible by the help of thousands of volunteers, organizers said. People are needed to staff each step of trip — from serving an early-morning breakfast, to driving buses to the airport, to helping set up a welcome home ceremony at the conclusion of the trip. Applications for volunteers also can be found on the Indy Honor Flight website.
Each veteran is required to have a guardian with them during the trip. This person can be a family member or volunteer, but the experience comes at a price of $450.
Buddying up with a vet as a guardian is a rewarding experience, said Jeremy Oesterling, a Cumberland resident who has assisted in different roles on three flights.
Serving as a guardian gives volunteers a chance to interact with and befriend the veterans, organizers said. Cress said he and Crickmore became friends during the flight in September. The two have visited several times since returning from Washington.
Crickmore said the experience was unforgettable, and he plans to pass along word of the program to his fellow veterans.
“When people go once, they want to go over and over again,” Oesterling said. “Most people don’t realize how amazing (the Honor Flight) is.”
Applications to take the Indy Honor Flight can be downloaded at indyhonorflight.com. The organization, which also is seeking volunteers to assist with those flights, defines eligible veterans as anyone who served actively in any location during the following years:
- World War II: Dec. 7, 1941, to Dec. 31, 1946
- Korean War: June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953
- Vietnam War: Feb. 28, 1961, to May 7, 1975