For over a decade, thousands of the US’s oldest veterans have arrived on the National Mall on Saturdays from March to November. They come from Long Island, Cleveland, Texas, Puerto Rico, Alaska. Former US Senator Bob Dole, a World War II veteran, often makes an appearance.
The veterans belong to Honor Flight Network, a national nonprofit established to bring veterans to the capital so they can visit the memorials dedicated to their service. For many, it’s their first time here. Priority is given to the most senior veterans, those who served in World War II and the Korean War (nearly four million are alive today), or those who are terminally ill. Honor Flight covers all transportation costs; what started with six veterans arriving on the Mall in 2005 has grown to over 200,000.
The veterans are greeted by re-enactors from Allied Airmen’s Preservation Society, a group of volunteers who are a fixture at the Honor Flight visits to the Mall. Dave Nichols, chairman of Honor Flight Network and an Air Force veteran who is also a re-enactor, says, “Our co-founders realized early on that many of these veterans have no way to get to DC due to costs. We feel that it’s important to get them here.”
On a recent Saturday, around 750 veterans from across the country visited the Mall. For many, this was an overdue homecoming. Says Nichols, “The first thing we say is ‘welcome home,’ because that’s something they didn’t get.”