Local Honor Flight Chapter Fulfills 11th Tour on May 14
The World War II Memorial in Washington D.C was completed in 2004, and as Honor Flight founder Earl Morse went about his job working as a physician assistant in the Department of Veteran Affairs clinic in Springfield, OH, he realized that many of his WWII patients would never travel to see the memorial dedicated to their war. In January 2005, he organized private pilots to fly and escort veterans around D.C. to see the capital of the country they served at war overseas.
Honor Flight was born, and has escorted more than 200,000 veterans at no cost to them, with hubs in almost every state, and seven in California. In 2014, Templeton native Greg McGill organized the first flight of 13 veterans from the Central Coast, and has since flown almost 250 veterans from the Central Coast to see the memorials in the nation’s capital.
“These memorials are a true tribute to the men and women of service,” Greg said, “and it is just a shame that so many of them never got to see their memorial. They wanted to see it, but just weren’t able to, financially. If the government felt it was important enough to build these memorials, then it is just as important that the veterans get to see them.”
As a firefighter out of Kern County, Greg was introduced to Honor Flight by an opportunity to be a Guardian — those who travel with the veterans and ensure a safe and memorable experience for every vet.
Greg’s First Flight
“My buddy asked me if I wanted to go to Washington D.C. to help with Honor Flight,” Greg said. “That trip is what sealed the deal for Honor Flight here on the Central Coast.”
Greg traveled with 20 WWII veterans out of Bakersfield on his first Honor Flight trip, and the rest is history.
“We go into the Baltimore airport, and there is a crowd of 400 to 500 people cheering for all these WWII veterans,” Greg said. “My buddy and I did not know what was happening. It was a total surprise for us, and to see the veterans so excited.”
Hearing Greg tell it, the trip was a whirlwind of emotion, wonder, laughter, tears, and forming friendships.
“The whole time on the trip, we heard stories of where they had been around the world,” Greg said. “Not just the war part, but ‘In France, I got to try this wine and it was so good. I was 19 years old.’ And my buddy and I come back and can’t stop talking about this trip.”
“Being that my first job was given to me by a WWII veteran here [in Templeton],” Greg said, “I wanted to find a way to give back the way I could.”
As a freshman at Templeton High School, Greg was hired by Chuck Breslin, owner of Four Paws Kennel and Marine veteran of WWII.
“It was really interesting to hear his life experience about living in Guam, Japan, and re-enlisting for Korea. He taught me a lot on the job,” Greg said. “Being born and raised here [in the North SLO County], I really wanted to do something for veterans here.”
Founding the Local Chapter
He couldn’t find a chapter on the Central Coast, so he helped start one.
“I called the Bakersfield chapter and sat with some of the board members,” Greg said. “I was 24 or 25 at that time. I had no idea of how to start a nonprofit, but I want to start something. They told me to find 10 to 15 veterans from the Central Coast and we would do one trip together.” Greg partnered with the Bakersfield chapter in 2013, taking 13 WWII vets from the Central Coast.
“I interviewed each veteran, found out where they went to high school and everything, and I wrote one-page papers on each and went to businesses and asked if they would sponsor these guys. Like that, I had $10,000,” Greg said.
After three trips taking Central Coast veterans with the Bakersfield chapter, it was clear that a Central Coast chapter needed to be established to serve the local area.
A Taste of the Trips
Although Greg is packing away enough experience with the flights to get used to the emotion, the impact still brought out the raw feelings of gratitude and healing the trips offer both veteran and Guardian.
“This is the last chapter of some of these veterans’ lives,” Greg conveyed. “For some, it is the last paragraph.”
The trip opens up doors and windows to the souls of the veterans, but it doesn’t just stop with the vets. It has an impact on the immediate family and friends as well.
“We took one, and a week later he passed away,” Greg said. “His son got ahold of me, and he said ‘what you guys did for my dad, really brought our family back together.’ I’m not going to say we ‘fixed’ their family, but we got them talking again about a positive experience.”
It is hard to really understand the impact of years of silence awakened by a voice from the past — especially when that voice is from your own son.
“We reached out to a vet’s son and told him that his dad was going on the trip,” Greg said. “The son said he didn’t talk to his dad, but then he wrote a letter to his dad. His dad told me, ‘I got a letter from my son. I don’t think you understand what it means to get a letter from my son. I haven’t talked to my son in years.’”
The healing that takes place for veterans making the trip, and those who show up to meet them when they touch down in D.C., is remarkable beyond words. Being a part of Honor Flight for Greg and other Guardians, is the result of a greater hand at work and each flight has its own surprises.
“We took one gal, Ruth Gwinn, a beautiful woman back during WWII,” Greg said. “She was a nurse, but women were not considered veterans back then. Truman signed them in as veterans. Ruth said she got to be there the day Truman signed women in. We went to the Women In Military Service For America Memorial, and there is her picture. One of the ladies working there heard us talk about it and went and got General [Wilma] Vaught. We got pictures of Ruth and General Vaught.”
The Cost of Honor Flight
There may be no way to put a price tag on the experience, but the trip costs Guardians $1,500 per trip, and Honor Flight Central Coast raises the money for the veterans’ trip.
Among other fundraising efforts, the second annual Vino for Vets will raise money through a network of wineries donating tasting fees and more to Honor Flight during the weekend of May 26 through 28.
As of publication, the wineries participating in Vino for Vets are Anglim Winery, Aronhill Vineyards, Bella Luna Estate Winery, Calcareous Vineyards, Cayucos Cellars, Hearst Ranch Winery, Pianetta Winery, Robert Hall Winery, and Rava Wines. For more information about Vino for Vets, go to honorflightccc.org or call Greg at 805-610-4014.
“It is really nice that we are all-volunteer, because every dime that comes in is put to use for Honor Flight,” Greg said.
The visit to the memorials is only part of the experience for the veterans.
“Less than 2% of our WWII veterans got a homecoming, and for Korean War vets it wasn’t much more,” Greg said. “With this trip, we get to give them a homecoming they never got. A group out of Santa Maria called Welcome Home Heroes travel all over the state and get people together and greet the vets at the airport. We throw a huge homecoming with flags everywhere and people cheering for them. We have 90-year old veterans out at 9:30 in the morning waiting to cheer other veterans coming back. It is really cool.”
The mission of Honor Flight is to honor all of America’s veterans by taking them to Washington D.C. on their “Tour of Honor” as our guest. Once there, they can visit and reflect at their memorials which have been built to honor their service.
On May 14, Honor Flight CCC will take its 11th flight with eight WWII vets and 14 Korean War vets, upon which a total of 267 veterans will have made the trip.
One of the original 13 Honor Flight Central Coast members, Gordon Bastien, began his military career as a 16-year old in 1943, served 16 years and some months — and said the 2014 Honor Flight “was the highlight to end it.”
“I was only a kid, 16, when I went to the Navy,” Gordon said. “By the time I got out of boot camp I was 17. In 1930s-40s we didn’t have much of an army and navy. We were just going along. We had built an army but not a lot. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, all hell broke loose. People started enlisting all over.”
Gordon served during WWII, and spent many years in flight and on carriers transporting equipment around the Pacific. After the war ended, he continued service in taking back foreign territories from Mejiro, Japan, to Marshall Islands, and Guam.
“We were just about to go to Iwa Jima,” Gordon said, “and they said ‘you been on three islands, so we’re sending you home.’ I came home and got married, and started cropdusting in Modesto.”
Half a lifetime later, Gordon found out that Greg was taking a group of veterans to D.C., and joined the original 13 from the Central Coast, with others from Bakersfield.
“I think we had about 60-something people on that flight,” Gordon said, “and you didn’t see a dry eye at the memorial. I broke down and it took two or three people to hold me up. We were all old men and all shedding tears. And not a one of us was ashamed to tear up about it.”Gordon could not say enough about Greg’s work in getting veterans to the memorials.
“For a young man like that, it was quite a feat,” Gordon said. “That young man deserves more credit than I can ever give him, and everyone on that first flight, to a man, will tell you that.”