News & Politics

Elderly Veterans Get a Smooch, and a Hearty “Welcome Home” on the Mall

The Honor Flight Network brings the nation's oldest veterans to DC every year for an overdue homecoming.

Elderly Veterans Get a Smooch, and a Hearty “Welcome Home” on the Mall
Hailey Shaw greets veterans from Austin, Texas. All photographs by Eric Kruszewski.

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.”

The World War II Memorial opened in 2004 and honors the nearly 300,000 American soldiers who died in service. Today, around half a million Americans of the 16 million who served in World War II are still living, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Joe Becker, a war re-enactor with the Allied Airmen’s Preservation Society, polishes the windshield of the Willy Jeep, parked near the World War II Memorial.
Hailey Shaw (right) applies lipstick on her mother, Laura. For the women, who are hospital nurse re-enactors with Allied Airmen’s Preservation Society, the Honor Flight visits are deeply personal—Laura’s father fought in World War II. They’re also meaningful. “We’ve had veterans grab our hands and say, ‘When I woke up, the first thing I saw was a nurse,'” says Laura.
Veterans from south Florida arrive on the Mall and move toward an Army car, a Plymouth nicknamed Clementine.
Re-enactors look on as Laura Shaw (left) and Hailey Shaw kiss Roy Stolting, a veteran from Houston. Nearly every veteran who arrives with Honor Flight stops for a photo and a smooch from the women.
The women go through, on average, two tubes of lipstick for each Honor Flight Network event. As many as 900 veterans have come through in one day.
Veterans from Houston salute as Army Master Sergeant Antonio S. Giuliano sings the Star-Spangled Banner, flanked by the Old Guard from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“This was on my bucket list,” says Chuck Moon, a Korean War veteran from Reno who teared up at the thought of seeing the Korean Memorial for the first time.
Margaret Smith of Nevada was among the first women assigned to the Women’s Army Corps as a driver in the motor pool, serving under General Eisenhower. It had been 70 years since she’d seen her staff car.
World War II-era memorabilia sits on display near the Plymouth.
Laura and Hailey Shaw embrace Dave Nichols. “Sparky” was his nickname in the military.
Veterans from south Florida join members of the Allied Airmen’s Preservation Society.
Chris Gabers dresses Kenneth Blasi, 2, in Army attire. Kenneth’s grandfather, C. Patrick McCourt, is a veteran and a volunteer with the National Park Service’s Living History program, which hosts period re-enactments.

Kim Olsen

Kim Olsen ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Alexandria.