Thousands of people who had planned to visit war memorials in Washington, D.C., this holiday weekend were forced to cancel this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. That includes veterans traveling with the nonprofit network Honor Flight, which recently suspended all trips at least until this fall.
"Our veterans that travel with us are still living, so their day is Veterans Day not Memorial Day," says Honor Flight CEO Meredith Rosenbeck. "But they go to honor their friends and comrades, those who have fallen."
Butch Meyer, 73, was scheduled to fly with Honor Flight this spring. He wanted to see his friend David Hollingsworth's name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.
"Holly was quite the buddy," says Meyer, who did two combat tours. "I had my vehicle blown out from under me. He was the first one to my aid. I got evac-ed out of there, and within two or three hours he had stepped on a mine and was killed. When you lose somebody close like that it impacts you for the rest of your life."
Meyer says he hopes to go in the fall. For some, that could be too long to wait. At 100 years old, Navy nurse Ruth Gunther is hoping she'll have a chance to make the trip to Washington whenever flights resume. She joined up in 1942 and worked treating troops wounded in the Pacific.
"One thing you miss when you get out of the service is that camaraderie that you had," she says, "Everybody that I knew well and kept up with already passed away."
Telling the World War II veterans that the trip was off, was the worst, says Honor Flight's Rosenbeck.
"We know some of our vets won't make it even to the fall if that's when we can fly again, but we knew also our priority is the safety of our veterans," she said.
For some of the vets, making the trip is part of taking care of their health.
"About 10 years ago, my counselor at the VA hospital said I needed to do something," says Vietnam vet Leland Shiro. "I was having so much difficulty emotionally — flashbacks, my sleeping, all that stuff."
Shiro's counselor advised him to go see the Vietnam memorial wall to help master his trauma. Ten years and a few aborted trips later, he was finally ready to go with Honor Flight. Then the pandemic cancelled his trip. Now 71, Shiro says he needs to make sure he doesn't use this as another excuse to avoid facing his demons.
"What it amounts to is it's just one more opportunity to not go, say, 'It ain't gonna happen, I quit,' " Shiro says. "But you know, I can't do that this time."
For all their disappointment this year, veterans know something about the common good, says Meyer, the Vietnam veteran.
"I don't want to be the person who goes out in the street and infects six other people," he says. "My place is to take care and be safe and to make other people safe. That's something we learned in the Marine Corps. You protect your comrades."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Thousands of people who had planned to visit the monuments here in Washington, D.C., this Memorial Day had to cancel their trips. That includes veterans traveling with a charity called Honor Flight. NPR's Quil Lawrence talked with some of them.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Meredith Rosenbeck leads Honor Flight, a nonprofit that flies veterans to the nation's capital.
MEREDITH ROSENBECK: Our veterans that travel with us, obviously, are still living, and so their day is Veterans Day, not Memorial Day. But they go to honor their friends and comrades, those who are fallen.
BUTCH MEYER: I knew we were going to go to the Vietnam Wall. I had friends' names on there, which I wanted to see in person.
LAWRENCE: Butch Meyer did two tours in Vietnam. He was scheduled to fly this spring.
MEYER: I know my best friend in Vietnam - I had my vehicle blown out from under me. He was the first one to my aid. I got evaced out of there. And within two or three hours, he had stepped on a mine and was killed, and that was kind of hard to take. Holly was quite the buddy. David Hollingsworth, he was from Colorado. And when you lose somebody close like that, it impacts you for the rest of your life.
LAWRENCE: Meyer says he hopes to go in the fall. For some, that could be too long to wait.
WINONA RUTH GUNTHER: My name is Winona Ruth Gunther. My maiden name was Anderson. So when I went into the service in 1942, I was Winona Ruth Anderson.
LAWRENCE: Gunther is 100 years old. She served as a Navy nurse, treating Americans wounded in the Pacific.
GUNTHER: These kids, when they were injured in the islands, the corpsman would just put a cast on, not clean the wound, put a lot of sulfur powder in the wound. That sulfur powder was the only miracle drug we had in those days. Before I left the service, we had penicillin, and that was a real miracle drug. And that was it for the - for World War II. We didn't have all these newfangled ones (laughter).
LAWRENCE: Telling the World War II vets that the trip was off was the worst, says Meredith Rosenbeck.
ROSENBECK: We know some of our veterans won't make it even through the fall, if that's when we can fly again. But we knew, also, our priority in Honor Flight is the safety of our veterans.
LAWRENCE: Some of the vets say the trip is part of taking care of their health. Leland Shiro has been trying to visit the Vietnam Memorial for years.
LELAND SHIRO: About 10 years ago, my counselor at the VA hospital said that I needed to do something because I was having so much difficulty emotionally - flashbacks, my sleeping and all that stuff.
LAWRENCE: First, he signed up for Rolling Thunder, the motorcycle rally to the Vietnam Wall. He backed out. A few years later, he bought a plane ticket - couldn't board the flight. He spent some time talking about stress with his two sons, who were both recent combat vets. Lately, he's doing better.
SHIRO: So she said - the same counselor called me again to try it again with the Honor Flights.
LAWRENCE: Shiro understands why they canceled the flight; he just wants to make sure he doesn't use it as an excuse to avoid going.
SHIRO: What it amounts to is just one more opportunity to not go. But, you know, I can't do that this time.
LAWRENCE: For all their disappointment, this is a group of people who know something about the common good, says Vietnam vet Butch Meyer.
MEYER: I don't want to be the person that goes out in the street and infects three to four to five to six other people. My place is to take care and to be safe and to make other people safe. That's something we learned in the Marine Corps. You protect your comrades.
LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF GIANTS' "WHITE THE AGES STEAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.