‘America’s patriotism is alive and well’

Written by Amy Palser

If you want to see patriotism in action, look no further than Wichita’s Eisenhower National Airport on a Friday afternoon when a Kansas Honor Flight arrives. The 50 or so United States veterans being led through the airport by a bagpiper are met with standing ovations, cheers, flags, balloons and hugs from not only their family members and friends, but cheerleaders, school groups and members of the public.

It’s an emotional experience for veterans and onlookers alike — a moment in time where veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars are showered with pride, appreciation and love.

“A lot of men and women who have served honorably — and especially our Vietnam-era vets — were not treated very well when they came home,” said Mike VanCampen of Hutchinson, president of Kansas Honor Flight. “I think today when the participants go through the airports and they are out and about in Washington and back to the Wichita airport, they find out America’s patriotism is alive and well.”

Kansas Honor Flight flies groups of Kansas veterans from the Wichita airport to Washington, D.C. where they are honored with a banquet, visit war memorials and receive a hero’s welcome when they return to Wichita. The volunteer-run group, which has no government funding, takes up to 57 veterans at a time on 11 honor flights each year — six in the spring and five in the fall — at no cost to the veterans. Over 1,800 veterans have participated since September 2012, and between 600 and 700 remain on the waiting list for upcoming trips.

“What is really cool, is all the funding to make this possible for our veterans comes from a faithful public,” VanCampen said. “Various student groups are raising money for these ‘old people’ — now that’s cool. Maize High School has raised a lot of money. The Garden City 4-H group has a chili feed every January and raises between $8,000 and $16,000 in one day selling chili. To see our youth step up and give their time and effort and talents, if that’s not patriotism, I don’t know what is.”

During this month when we celebrate Independence Day, patriotism is seemingly everywhere. American flags fly on porches; children and adults don red, white and blue clothing; fireworks simulate “the bombs bursting in air.” Memorial Day and Veterans Day also give Wichitans a chance to show their patriotism and honor servicemen and women. But Honor Flight volunteers say there are little things Americans can do year-round to show their patriotism.

“Certainly as we go through Dillons and Walmart and we’re out and about and see a man or woman in uniform, just simply go by and thank them for their service,” VanCampen said. “Shake their hand and say, ‘We appreciate what you’re doing for all of us.’ ”

Lowell Downey of Hutchinson, a Kansas Honor Flight board member, has been a leader on 25 honor flights. As a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, he said flying an American flag is a simple but meaningful way Americans can show patriotism.

“It doesn’t take a lot of effort. I’ve flown an American flag at my home for a long time,” he said.

A tribute to the American flag is an emotional part of the Kansas Honor Flight trips of which Downey has been a part. On the first evening of the trip, the veterans visit Baltimore’s Fort McHenry National Monument where Francis Scott Key penned the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

“We raise this huge flag that’s 35 feet by 40 feet at the exact same spot where the flag survived through the night,” he said. “It’s a very patriotic start.”

Another extremely important part of patriotism is the study of American history, Downey said. School children must be taught the sacrifices made by American service personnel, and adults should continue studying the subject. History, he said, should never be neglected nor forgotten.

Vietnam War veteran Larry Faulkner of Wichita was part of Kansas Honor Flight 59 that left May 30 and returned June 1. He felt honored by the trip, and it’s something he hopes every war veteran gets to experience.

“When we landed in Baltimore we got a great reception there, and when we came back to Wichita we got a great reception there,” Faulkner said. “I’ve been to D.C. many times, but before this trip, I didn’t have the fortitude to walk up to the memorials. It was one of the greatest things I ever did. I have 15 friends on the Vietnam Wall. I owed it to myself.”

As a Vietnam War veteran, the trip was the welcome home Downey never got.

“I’m glad I did what I did,” Faulkner said of serving in Vietnam. “If I was in a position and Uncle Sam made me, I’d do it again.”

Today, Faulkner shows his patriotism by transporting patients at the VA hospital to and from appointments. Supporting groups that support veterans, like Veterans Affairs and Kansas Honor Flight, are a great way to demonstrate patriotism, the volunteers said.

Kansas Honor Flight volunteer Gayle Huffman of Wichita got involved with the program through VanCampen, and today half of her garage is filled with the shirts and other goodies that will go to honor flight participants. She was able to take part in an honor flight a few years ago as a guardian.

“I think it’s a very important program,” Huffman said. “It’s so rewarding to see these veterans come back from an honor flight. It’s so emotional and they’re so thankful.”

To see folks stand up in an airport and applaud the veterans, she said, is a healing moment for men and women who gave so much. It doesn’t get more patriotic than that.

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