Remembering Sacrifices This Memorial Day

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There are a couple of ways things can go when you hear the sorrowful, yet beautiful sound of a bagpipe humming between you and your departure gate at the airport.

Many of you, like me, travel for business, whether you’re a sales rep visiting prospects and customers throughout your region or a marketer headed to a trade show, conference or sister office. You’ve gotten the “quick business trip” down to something of a finely tuned process: boarding pass downloaded to smartphone; carry-on packed with work laptop, charging cable, pens and business cards, extra underwear and socks (you never know), and so forth.

You’ve learned how to zig and zag through the terminal, avoiding the people watchers, the slow walkers, and the occasional high school cheer squad on its way to a competition.

What you’re not expecting is – to see waving American flags and dozens of volunteers, fellow travelers, police honor guard members, American Legion members, and (one each) a US Senator and a bagpiper all standing around the gate ahead of you warmly welcoming World War II and Korean War veterans.

“These are veterans getting thanked for their service,” said Mike Pungercar, director of the South Willamette Valley Honor Flight. “We treat these men and women like royalty.”

Pungercar’s group is a chapter, or hub, of the national Honor Flight Network program, whose mission is to fly veterans to their respective military memorials in Washington, D.C. Preference is given to WWII veterans, then terminally ill veterans, Korean War veterans, and Vietnam veterans.

“It is a very powerful experience for many of these men,” Pungercar said. But, he said, these veterans will be the first to tell you the real heroes were the men and women who died in service and never made it back home.

On this Memorial Day, a US holiday remembering those who died while serving in the armed forces, what does it mean to remember?

For me, like many of you I’d guess, Memorial Day represents a three-day holiday weekend and the start of summer. And as you read this, I will be bike riding and wine tasting (separate events) in Canada’s Okanagan Valley with family and friends.

But as I write this, this respite is still weeks away. On my mind: being in Portland International Airport and watching Senator Ron Wyden (Democrat,Oregon) push a WWII vet in a wheelchair down the concourse on a Sunday evening, as travelers stopped what they were doing and lined up along each side of the column of vets to watch and applaud.

“Because I feel so strongly that in Oregon we treat our veterans with the honor and respect they have earned, I very much wanted to welcome these heroes on their return to Portland,” Wyden said. “We must never forget our veterans’ sacrifices and should always take every opportunity to show them our gratitude.”

According to the US Veterans Administration, about 500 WWII veterans are dying each day and there are only about 855,000 veterans remaining of the 16.2 million who served during the war. More than 400,000 American soldiers died in WWII, along with more than 60 million more soldiers and civilians throughout the world. As a comparison, the 2014 total population for the states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska was about 64.7 million.

Pungercar said time is running out to express our thanks to these men and women who served, whether in WWII or in Korea. The WWII vets are in their mid-90s and the Korean vets are in their 80s. Sadly, the clock is ticking on them making this unforgettable trip. Pungercar said his South Willamette Valley Honor Flight chapter schedules two trips a year, one in May and the other in October.

His chapter represents veterans living in Oregon’s Lane, Linn, Lincoln, and Benton counties. Oregon has three other Honor Flight hubs covering the rest of the state. Each nonprofit hub covers all the expenses for the trip, raising money from speaking engagements and donations. The veterans are also assigned guardians that accompany them on the trip. The guardians, often family members, pay their own way.

In addition to seeing the World War II memorial, the veterans visit the Korean War and Vietnam War memorials, the Lincoln Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the memorials for each of the service branches. They also attend the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.

Pungercar, who wrote a book about his father’s time with the U.S. 8th Air Force flying more than 30 bombing missions over Germany, said that 19 WWII vets and 21 Korean War vets joined on the trip I was observing. He said that  between October 2012 and May 2016, his chapter sent 381 veterans on the trip. Nationally, the Honor Flight Network has escorted nearly 160,000 veterans on the trip.

Quite often these vets have never talked about their experiences in the war. For many of them, they simply returned home to little fanfare and the next day went back to the jobs they left behind.

The opportunity to reconnect with other vets and share similar stories on these trips is as important as the granite memorials they visit, and where they say goodbye to the ones that didn’t make it home.

“It is a very powerful experience for many of these men,” Pungercar said. “I’ve had sons and daughters of the vets tell me their fathers talk about the trip every day.”

What does remembering Memorial Day mean and how does it relate to the unforgettable experience of these Honor Flights?

Military service, specifically my own past service, has been on my mind recently. I served in the US Navy, serving on board a submarine. In a couple of weeks, my fellow crew members of the USS Baltimore, SSN 704, will be meeting for our first reunion, where plenty of stories (some of which may be true) will be told and retold.

Like I said, coming across the Honor Flight celebration as I headed out on my business trip could have gone a couple of ways for me. I could have been annoyed at the interruption, quickly looking for a way around them and to my departure gate. Or…

…or I could slow down, stop, pay attention, maybe grab my phone and start recording some video. And I could then slip my phone back into a pocket, put my hands together in applause, and join all those others that made an evening trip to the PDX airport to welcome home these vets, and thank them for their service.

Memorial Day has become many things. It’s a holiday weekend to be shared with loved ones. It’s the start of summer. And it is an opportunity for businesses to drive attraction and some much needed sales.

It’s also a day to remember, even if just for a moment, the sacrifices made by the men and women who have come before us and those being made today, whether in uniform or in other battles, whether for the United States or wherever you call home, home.

Let’s remember that their sacrifice was for something better.