VINALHAVEN — It was a trip Leonard “Buddy” Skoog knew he was making for those who couldn’t.
“Even though I was very flattered and felt very welcomed,” said the World War II naval aviator, “my thoughts were, ‘This was not just for you, Buddy. This was for all the boys that never had a welcome home.’ I felt good when we came home on Sunday. They had their welcome home. Not just me, every one of them.”
That kind of impact was the goal of the island’s version of the “honor flight,” which, on March 21-23, sent four island veterans to Washington D.C.
Joining Skoog for the all-expenses-paid trip—affiliated with the national Honor Flight Network, an organization dedicated to flying America’s veterans to the nation’s capital to visit their war memorials—were Clarence “Cap” Conway, Gordon “Bobo” Walsh and Fred Small.
Priority is given to terminally ill veterans followed by World War II veterans, then those of the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Vinalhaven’s Honor Flight was founded in 2005 by the island’s physician’s assistant, Earl Morse.
“Honor Flight is nothing but an opportunity, much like Memorial Day, an opportunity to say thank you,” said Morse. “It really sticks with them, once they realize that the entire nation [appreciates] them. It’s really exciting to make that happen, for them to realize how revered and how cherished and how loved they are by everyone makes me feel great.”
Honor Flight organizers make sure it’s the trip of a lifetime for those who participate. This trip began with a day of activities at Vinalhaven School, including interviews of the veterans by students, a patriotic assembly and an outdoor flag-waving send-off.
Crowds cheered the veterans again at airports in both Portland and Baltimore, waiting to shake their hands and thank them for their service. The veterans were issued official Honor Flight sweatshirts so that passersby could identify them.
“Everywhere you went people patted you on the back and said ‘thank you,'” Skoog said. “It was tremendous.”
Once in Washington, a Vietnam veterans motorcycle honor guard escorted the group from their hotel to the World War II Memorial. They also saw the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Navy and Air Force Memorials, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
Small, who served in the U.S. Army Infantry during the Vietnam War, found most of his 12 buddies’ names on the memorial wall. But for him, “it wasn’t the remembrance that was important to me. It was the welcome and the camaraderie because that is the piece that was missing my whole life,” he said.
The veterans flew home the next day, but the surprises were not over. Every Honor Flight includes “mail call” on its return trip.
Skoog recounted how the flight attendant “called out our names and brought us these big envelopes filled with mail from the kids and townspeople. I had enough in my package to read all the way to Portland. I still had ten more left to read. That was tremendous,” he said.
Small is a lifetime educator, having served at one time as Vinalhaven School’s principal, and now as a substitute teacher there. He described one very meaningful letter from a young student he worked with. The student addressed Small as “Mr. Fred,” included a picture of two flags and two stick figures and wrote “You’re important to me.”
The Honor Flight arrived at the Vinalhaven airstrip on a blustery, frigid Sunday afternoon to a crowd of well-wishers waving flags, brandishing posters and cheering their return. There was a reception at the American Legion Hall where Morse presented Legion Commander Dave Moyer with a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capital building.
Now that the Honor Flight veterans are home and have had time to reflect on their trip, they acknowledge that this was a life-changing experience.
“It’s changed me in the respect that I feel closer to the younger people on this island, the teachers and the students,” said Skoog. “They put so much into it that you couldn’t walk away without a very affectionate feeling toward these people.”
Small, on the other hand, feels this was a healing experience for him.
“It’s more of a relief. I’ve had pent up feelings festering for so many years,” he said. “It’s a healing process for me, I feel different now. It’s hard to put into words because you would have had to have been there to know what I’m talking about. The emails I’m getting now, most of them start with ‘welcome home.’ I’ve heard that more in the last two weeks than I’ve heard in my entire life. That’s important to me and that’s why I feel it’s important that every veteran, especially Vietnam veterans, when the time is right, get the opportunity to go and get the welcoming that they never had.”
Fortunately, the Honor Flight Network is one step closer to that goal. On April 8, Maine was officially recognized as an Honor Flight hub. According to Morse, Honor Flight Maine has a new board of directors, which includes Small, and the board is working on the application to become a nonprofit organization.
The next Honor Flight Maine trip will be Aug. 25, with a July 25 application deadline. Honor Flight Maine is in need of funds, volunteers and veterans and is seeking those who may be able to help as a legal coordinator, a PR/media/marketing assistant, a fraternal organization program assistant, or a fundraising director willing to work statewide. In addition, Honor Flight Maine is in need of a volunteer in Portland to assist with airport operations.
If there is one thing Vinalhaven’s Honor Flight veterans had to say those veterans considering taking a future flight, it was a resounding “Go!”
“There’s not a word to describe how great it was,” said Conway, who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. He went on the trip in honor of his four brothers, two who fought in World War II and two who fought in the Vietnam War.