Honor Flight Maine makes it possible for veterans to fly free of charge to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials and Arlington National Cemetery.

World War II veterans now are mostly in their 90s, but age didn’t stop Honor Flight Maine from gathering enough of them to fill half of the 46 seats reserved for veterans – veterans from the Korean conflict filled the remainder – on the group’s latest trip in late October to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Since 2005, upwards of 200,000 U.S. military veterans have taken part in the Honor Flight trips, which is free of charge for the veterans.

Maine’s program, which launched in 2014, has undertaken 13 trips so far, taking about 300 veterans to Washington, D.C. World War II veterans are given priority on the trips, although some participants have fought in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

Sophia Smith, 5, of Buxton, holds a sign as she waits to welcome veterans returning to Maine from an Honor Flight trip. Staff photo by Jill Brady

The trip on the last weekend of October was its third this year and its largest yet. It is an Honor Flight Maine tradition that, upon the group’s return to Portland International Jetport, bagpipers lead veterans down a red carpet as well-wishers cheer and children hold signs to welcome them home.

The October trip included World War II veteran and hospice patient Don Tully of Waterville, who was escorted by state police from Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta to the airport. He’s one of a handful of hospice patients to go on an Honor Flight Maine trip. Terminally ill veterans from any conflict are first in line for a seat along with World War II veterans. Korean and Vietnam war veterans are the organization’s “second priority.”

On all Honor Flights, veterans are paired with a guardian who takes care of them during the trip. No matter how physically active, veterans ride in wheelchairs, pushed by guardians through airports and from buses to memorials. Veterans wear matching shirts, as do their escorts. Each Honor Flight hub selects its own colors; Maine veterans don granite gray, their guardians light blue.

Most of the veterans are apprehensive about the trip before they go, because it “takes them way outside their comfort zone,” said David Patch of Boothbay Harbor, a board member of the all-volunteer nonprofit and a retired U.S. Navy commander and Vietnam War veteran.

But that changes when the journey begins. “It’s amazing how fast they get out of their worry factor and they adapt to the situation and they are having a ball,” said Patch, who has been a guardian twice.

Maine, known for its high rate of military service, was a natural to have its own Honor Flight “hub,” as the national network’s local affiliates are known.

While working at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Ohio, pilot and former Air Force medic Earl Morse had a conversation with a veteran that led him to start Honor Flight. In 2005, he got fellow Aero Club members to join him in flying World War II veterans to the capital to see the then-new World War II memorial. The program quickly grew and spread.

Morse co-founded the Springfield, Ohio-based network, served as its president for many years, and remains on its board. In late 2013, Morse moved to Maine. A physician assistant at the Bangor VA clinic, the former Air Force medic quickly helped create a hub in one of the few states that lacked one. Now an Honor Flight Maine board member, he goes anywhere in the state to assess whether a veteran can physically make the trip. Morse and Honor Flight Maine’s chairperson, Laurie Sidelinger of Turner, served as trip leaders on the recent Honor Flight.

Leaders of veteran organizations are typically veterans themselves, but Sidelinger, who always attended Veterans Day parades as a kid, is not. She got involved with Honor Flight after hearing Morse talk at a Vinalhaven church. Cheery and diligent, she often puts in 40-plus-hour weeks in her volunteer role, even after taking a job with Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services.

“If you’ve ever been around Laurie when she is with a veteran, you’ll see that her compassion and her heart are so exposed,” said Patch, who’s active in numerous veteran organizations and is vice commander of Maine Veterans Coordinating Committee, which brings together state and federal agencies serving Maine veterans. “It touches everybody around her.”

Nancy Murphy of Harrison tucks a flag in her back pocket as she waits to welcome Honor Flight veterans home. Staff photo by Jill Brady

Shortly before the October trip, Sidelinger and Patch made a last-minute adjustment to their schedules to do an Honor Flight bedside presentation for Korean War Air Force veteran William Petherbridge of Manchester. He’d become too ill to go on the trip, and died a couple days after the presentation. Sidelinger’s voice cracked when talking about the experience, as it often does when she discusses Honor Flight.

“It’s about the veterans and bringing them honor and gratitude,” she said, deflecting praise for her work.

Organizing and executing the trips is meticulous, labor-intensive work. The veterans – many of them now elderly and living with disabilities – are assessed to determine whether they can travel. Guardians are selected and instructed. Many of them are family members, some are volunteers; all pay $500 to cover their costs. (Family and friends can meet veterans at the D.C. memorials.)

Before each departure, every veteran’s medications and oxygen tanks must be ready, extra supplies packed and wheelchairs loaded onto a snowmobile trailer.

Hubs east of the Mississippi River generally do one-day trips, but Maine’s run Friday through Sunday, for practical reasons. In a large rural state, it takes many people three or four hours to get to the Jetport, where the trips depart, with members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations often driving participants.

The trips adhere to a schedule: After arriving Friday afternoon in Baltimore, the Maine contingent visits nearby historic Fort McHenry. Saturday’s first stop is the World War II Memorial. Veterans spend two hours at the large, embracing space on the National Mall across the Reflecting Pool from the Lincoln Memorial. Anchored by its own pool, the war memorial has bas-relief panels and granite columns representing states and territories that had citizens who served in the war. From there, the group goes across the Potomac River to visit the Air Force Memorial.

The group then visits Arlington National Cemetery, where they witness the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a ritual for most of the Honor Flight visits and an emotional time even for other visitors to Arlington who see the presence of the older veterans with their guardians.

After stops at the Women In Military Service For America and U.S. Marine Corps memorials, the group then returns to the National Mall to visit the Korean and Vietnam war memorials.

Honor Flight Maine relies on donations from individuals and businesses, with many military families requesting donations to help fund Honor Flights, in lieu of flowers, when their military family member dies. For more information on Honor Flight Maine, visit honorflightmaine.org.

Mary Ruoff is a freelance writer in Belfast.