Rhonda Cooper found her life’s mission by accident.
“I was a Patriot Guard Rider with my husband, John, and we’d ride to honor vets at funerals. On one ride to escort vets to Albany who came from Schoharie County, we watched this unbelievable homecoming ceremony (given to all vets at Albany International Airport who go on the Honor Flight Tour),” Cooper said. “It was life-changing. I knew I had to be part of this.”
Cooper became a volunteer in 2013 with the Leatherstocking Honor Flight “hub,” one of ten in the state, which takes veterans of World War II, the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War and those vets terminally ill to see their memorials in Washington, D.C. The one-day trip, which includes the flight on Southwest Airlines, all meals, the private touring bus, visits to the memorials and to watch the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, is free. All medical concerns are met and each veteran is accompanied by a guardian, who can be a family member, friend, or volunteer, who spends the entire trip by the vet’s side. The cost to each guardian is $350.
After doing a few trips as a volunteer, Cooper assumed the role of trip coordinator and discovered that one of her biggest tasks was to find veterans.
“This is all word of mouth,” she said. “Many of the veterans who came with us on our May 6 trip told us that if they’d not seen our sign at B.J.’s or at their doctor’s office, they’d never have heard of us.”
This is surprising since the Honor Flight program has been around conceptually since 2004. Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain and physician assistant working through the Department of Veterans Affairs in a Springfield, OH office, began talking with World War II veterans about the then newly-dedicated World War II memorial in D.C. and asked them if they’d like to see it. When he learned that either physical or financial limitations were preventing them to make the trip, he rounded up six private pilots and flew twelve World War II veterans to the memorial. Within months, more pilots had signed on and the Honor Flight Network was founded. Today, there are 131 hubs in 45 states and is funded entirely by donations.
But time is wasting. Most of these World War II veterans are in their 90s and according to the organization’s national website, there are more than 27,000 veterans on the waiting list.
“We do up to four or five trips each year. Last year we took 138 veterans to Washington,” Cooper said. “Our June 10 trip is full but we’re accepting applications now for our September flight and we encourage vets to get them in.”
The trip is well worth it.
“We treat the veterans like rock stars,” she said. “The flight leaves around 6 a.m. and we give them a motorcycle escort to cheer them on and a 20-minute honor ceremony before they go through security. When the flight returns around 11 p.m., there are crowds waving flags to welcome them back. It’s incredible.”
For Cooper, though, each trip is very personal.
“Just going to D.C. is a beautiful trip and walking through the memorials,” she said. “But with a veteran at their memorial. . .to see the expression on their faces, the tears in their eyes and to hear their stories. There are no words. This is living history.”
Veterans can apply online at www.leatherstockinghonorflight.org or call Cooper at 518-878-2257 to get an application.