An Unexpected Honor

My experience aboard a D.C.-bound Honor Flight

PHOTO: Britannica.

PHOTO: Britannica.

Understatement of the year: I am not a morning person. So giving me a 6:00am call-time is simply laughable. I stayed up late Wednesday night to change my 7:00am flight—with layover—to an 8:20am direct flight. The pros outweighed the cons. Truly the only con was that I would have to settle for a middle seat. I decided Mercury retrograde was on my side… Little did I know the universe had more in store for me.

In addition to the extremely on-time departure and landing, I was on a very special flight today: Virgin America’s Honor Flight, appropriately numbered Flight 1, bringing World War II veterans from the Bay Area to Washington,  D.C. to visit the WWII memorial. They let all the vets and their group on the plane first after a gate side reception. I was in the last boarding group, found my seat and, after I’d asked the elderly gentleman (wearing the group’s hat and t-shirt) to let me slide through to my seat, I found out that he, Glenn Weaver, was the eldest vet on the plane at 95 years young.

Throughout the flight I helped him figure out the entertainment system and open bottles of water.

“When my son brings me groceries, I always ask him to open the bottles before he goes. Otherwise, they will be right there where he left them when he gets back.” He kept offering some of his snacks, and I kept refusing until he finally just started putting some on my tray table.

I got up to use the restroom a couple times, and I smiled at everyone in the group I made eye contact with. The vibe of the plane was different than on a regular flight. Compassion. Patience. Camaraderie. Gratitude. These are the words that come to mind.

Standing in line in the aisle, I observed a woman passing a notebook back and forth with one of the vets across the aisle.

“What does this say? I could never read your writing,” she said. I assumed she was one of the volunteer caretakers.

He passed it back and said, “Emily. I remember Emily.”

“All these years… and it’s the first time he shared this with me,” she said to me, gesturing to the book. I was witnessing a special moment between father and daughter.

That moment further solidified my belief: writing down your thoughts, documenting your first person account, is the best preservation of human history. (Hello, Anne Frank)

Eventually back in row 12, Mr. Weaver and I chatted about where he was during the war.

“South Pacific,” he said, proceeding to tell me that he had won a number of medals awarded by the US and 2 awarded by the Philippines—my family’s native country. As we joked about how he never got to see the islands because he was at the bottom of a ship, I felt the need to thank him for his service.

I obviously wasn’t the only one who felt that way. As our plane approached the gate, the captain asked all window-seat passengers to open their shades and all veterans to turn their attention outside, where two fire trucks shot water canon salutes on either side of the plane.

“That’s great! It’s about time the plane got a wash,” Mr. Weaver chuckled.

WWII is only a story to me as someone born decades later in a time of peace, and yet a choke of emotion overtook me. That was nothing compared to what happened after de-boarding the plane.

Mr. Weaver and I shook hands before we parted ways. I told him it was a pleasure flying with him and an honor spending time together.

The regular guests left the plane first, and as I came down the walkway I saw a line of American flags, hung overhead, held by a hoard of people waiting, and signs welcoming the veterans. How could I not stick around to see my new friend welcomed to our nation’s capital by this crowd?

Mr. Weaver was the first off the plane, pushed in a wheelchair by his son. He waved to the crowd as we cheered him on. People shook his hand as he passed. Some offered hugs. Everyone thanked him for his service. This happened several times as each of the men (and one woman) came out.

One veteran was overcome by the experience and cried, wiping his eyes as strangers leaned down to hug him. I guess I’ll never know what prompted his emotion: a memory from his time in service? A recollection of the welcome home victory parade? Sadness for someone he lost? Gratitude for being alive? For recognition?

Several standers-by began to cry as well. We don’t know this man. Most of us weren’t born until after the war. And yet the experience was purely human. We are all one, we are all interconnected, but the only way we learn that is by sharing our experience, by turning to the stranger next to us and engaging, by opening our minds and our hearts to the unknown, and by remembering to see the world. Once we do we just might realize how great the human experience is and how little our differences eventually mean.

My challenge to you is this: Get to know the person next to you, get to know their story and their struggle, and find the tie that connects you. The more easily we recognize the parallels, the closer we’ll get to a true global community.

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