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A last-chance thank you for veterans

Retired Air Force pilot Joe Mathis spoke Tuesday to the Clanton Rotary Club on a subject of great interest to local veterans.

The Honor Flight Network offers free flights to U.S. Military veterans that wish to visit memorials dedicated to the service and sacrifice of themselves and their friends.

The group’s first priority is World War II veterans, but it also helps veterans with terminal illnesses and veterans of Korea, Vietnam and other wars.

The River Region of Honor Flight is based in Prattville but could serve local veterans in Chilton County.

“I’ve never seen anything that has had such an effect on me, my family and friends,” Mathis said. “Honor Flight is a program designed to say ‘thank you’ to World War II veterans. It has taken us 60 years to ever say ‘thank you.’”

When President Bush dedicated the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. in May 2004, an interesting thing happened to a physician’s assistant at the Springfield VA Clinic in Springfield, Ohio.

Earl Morris came up with the idea of flying veterans to visit their memorials without charging them a dime. Donations would cover the cost of flight as well as food.

With the program up and running, the waiting list was overwhelming. More than 3,000 vets were waiting, and about 50 had died before ever getting the opportunity.

Enter Jeff Miller of North Carolina, who helped expand the program by raising enough money to charter planes to Washington. Seven hundred jets were chartered to transport veterans from across the country.

The response was similar in Prattville, though Mathis did not know how people would react at first.

“It didn’t take very long to find out,” he said. “We had nearly 400 applications, and we have taken about half of them [to Washington].”

Each trip has a capacity of about 46 or 47 people. These are divided into groups of red, white and blue, and they all wear yellow T-shirts so they are easily spotted.

Before each departure, a local pastor gets on board and prays with the group for a safe return.

“Fifty had never been on a plane, and 20 had never been out of the State of Alabama since the war,” Mathis said.

Upon arrival in Washington, a band plays ‘40s and ‘50s music, and a volunteer group greets the vets as they step off the plane. Bob Dole has been present to greet each group, Mathis noted.

At the WWII Memorial, a bagpipe plays “Sweet Home Alabama” and patriotic songs. Needless to say, the vets are treated like the heroes they are.

“It’s like when Moses parted the Red Sea. People just back up,” Mathis said.

After lunch, the group goes sightseeing. This portion includes other significant monuments, including the Tomb of the Unknowns.

“It’s the most invigorating experience I’ve ever had anything to do with,” Mathis said.

The River Region of Honor Flight has survived on donations alone. The group has had more than 600 contributions since its inception.

Anyone who is interested may visit the Prattville Area Chamber of Commerce Web site at www.prattvillechamber.com and download an application.