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June 23, 2009

APL Staff Honored to Serve Veterans on Capital Visit

On April 25th, at just after 10 a.m., 125 World War II veterans from the Huntsville, AL, area arrived at Reagan National Airport to cheering crowds, including USO representatives, passing travelers, and the nearly 100 APL staff members who would be their companions for the day.

As they emerged from the jetway, the veterans' expressions were revealing. The warm and enthusiastic welcome obviously touched many of these men and women — all in their 80s and 90s — who had never seen the memorial that was built in their honor. The trip was made possible by the Tennessee Valley chapter of Honor Flight, an organization that flies WWII veterans to the nation's capital free of charge to spend a day visiting the monuments.

J. Garber, of the Global Engagement Department, brought Honor Flight and APL together. After volunteering as a guardian (or escort) last fall, she proposed that the Laboratory sponsor an entire flight. Staff members from eight Laboratory departments eagerly pledged support. "It was fitting for APL to provide the volunteers and guardians for these men and women who were serving in our armed forces during WWII, when APL was established," said C. Grant, head of the Air and Missile Defense Department.  He signed up as a guardian, along with many staff members from his department. "It kind of brings us full circle."

Heroic Men, Valiant Women

As guardians found their assigned veterans, conversation and connection came easily. Some even held hands as they boarded buses that would take them to the World War II Memorial, the Women's War Museum, the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, and the Marine Corps War (Iwo Jima) Memorial.

If the visitors' age and the unusually hot weather were taking a toll, it wasn't obvious. Most of the veterans had been on a waiting list for more than a year, and they were not going to miss out. Three sets of brothers were among the honorees, says B. Keane, who handled most of the administrative tasks to organize the event. "There were also several sets of friends who wanted to travel together," she adds. "We had a double amputee, one with leg and back pain from a war injury, one that has lung cancer and partial sight, and one fully disabled from a wartime injury."

They represented all branches of the military and served in many capacities, from aviators, sailors, and radio operators to engineers, drivers, and nurses. Many shared stories of fallen comrades and near-death experiences.

Caring for the veterans was a great responsibility. Guardians in their yellow shirts could be seen pushing wheelchairs (about a third of the veterans needed one), taking their veterans' arms, getting water, and frequently asking, "Are you OK?" But all told, the guardians likely gained more from the experience than their honorees.

S. Harshbarger, who works with the Biomedicine Business Area's prosthetic arm program, says the day had special meaning for him. "My father was both a WWII and Korean War vet … and then there is the direct correlation and motivation with the prosthetics and rehabilitation technology programs that I am working with," he says. "It was a great experience."

R. Rzemien has "many, many great memories: the airplane arriving through the mist of a water-cannon salute, my honoree meeting his U.S. senator, and  scores of children thanking him for his service to our country.

Guardians and volunteers gave a 14-hour day to be part of the experience." "It was incredible to be there with the veterans and witness their emotions, their pride, and their gratitude for being honored," Grant says. "I was very proud of our APL community today."

For more information about Honor Flight, visit www.honorflight.org.