Highland mother and daughter Bernie and Amy Underwood recently returned from escorting a group of Inland Empire veterans to see the war memorials in Washington, D.C., a trip they say was a life-changing event for the veterans as well as themselves.
The trip was organized by Honor Flight Inland Empire, the local chapter of a nonprofit program that organizes and pays for war veterans to visit the memorials created to honor their heroism and sacrifice.
The trip included 33 veterans and 18 guardians visiting the nation’s capitol on Sept. 21 with two days of travel. In addition to being guardians for the veterans, Bernie helped organize the trip while Amy served as the trip’s nurse.
Honor Flight Inland Empire was founded in 2010. It’s original mission was to assist the WWII veterans of the Greatest Generation in visiting the recently completed National World War II Memorial, opened in 2004.
With the number of surviving WWII veterans able to fly quickly reducing the program was expanded to include veterans of all wars.
Approximately 16.1 million American served in WWII, and, according to Honor Flight, 697,806 were still living as of 2016. An estimated 366 WWII veterans, 400 Korean War veterans and 426 Vietnam War veterans are lost each day.
Veterans from WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm and the Iraqi War were all represented in the trip.
The oldest of the group was a 98-year-old WWII veteran from Pico Rivera. The group also included two female veterans, two of the youngest to make the trip.
Serving those who served
Bernie first became involved in Honor Flight after reading about the nonprofit in a newspaper and seeking out a local chapter. Bernie went on her first trip with her husband Gary, last base commander of Norton Air Force Base, as part of a group out of Phoenix.
“My father was a World War II veteran and this was something I felt I could do in his honor because he never got to go out to see the memorial,” said Bernie.
“We have a family full of veterans. My grandfather was a WWII veteran, my dad is a Vietnam veteran, my uncle served in the Army and my great uncle in the Navy during WWII,” said Amy.
As a military family, the Underwoods already had some understanding of the sacrifices made by veterans but this trip helped them get an even deeper appreciation and desire to serve the veterans.
Many of the veterans ran away from home and/or lied about their age in order to serve their country.
“When they shared their stories we gained a real appreciation for their sacrifice, what they left, their friends, their families,” Amy said. “Many of them were just kids when they left, 17 years old, their willingness, they wanted to serve their country, they couldn’t wait to, couldn't wait to defend their freedom and make sure that lives on. So many people have sacrificed for our country and continue to.”
Bernie added that she was 2 years old before she saw her father, a WWII veteran.
While free for the veterans, the trip was a heartfelt act of service and appreciation for the guardians who paid their own way.
Amy said, as guardians, their main role was insuring no one fell, as many of the veterans were elderly.
It was also important for the families of the veterans to feel their loved ones were well cared for while they were away from home.
Going to Washington
Flying out of Ontario, the Patriot Guard gave the group a motorcycle escort to the airport. Upon landing in Baltimore the airport’s fire engines gave the plane a “water gun salute” and people in the airport honored the veterans in the terminal.
“Everyone stood and clapped for the veterans,” Amy said. “It was pretty amazing and touching.”
The Underwoods said wherever the group went they were met by an impressive display of appreciation and respect.
Their day in Washington, D.C. was a full one as the group visited the National WWII Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the U.S. Marines War (Iwo Jima) Memorial, Vietnam Women’s Memorial, U.S. Air Force Memorial, U.S. Navy Museum and Arlington Cemetery to see the changing of the guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and visit the Nurses Memorial.
“It’s quite a feat to get in and out of the bus with these older veterans,” Amy said.
“It’s amazing that these solders could do it,” said Bernie, of the busy itinerary. “They seemed to perk up.”
“They absolutely loved it,” Bernie added. “I heard one of them say it was the best day of his life.”
The trip home proved to be a particularly special part of the adventure as the veterans grew more familiar with each other and began sharing their stories.
Amy shared that many of the veterans from the older generations did not talk of their war experiences when they first returned home and many of the stories told on the plane were being told for the first time.
On the plane, the veterans received a “mail call,” each veteran getting thank you notes for their service, from family as well as strangers.
“The man I was sitting next started to tear up and said, ‘I’m going to wait until I get home and share this with my wife,’” Bernie said.
Back in Ontario, the airport gave the veteran’s plane another water gun salute and the airport was crammed with family, friends, scout groups, Brownies and other patriots welcoming them home.
“The veterans were overcome, and some of them cried,” said Amy. “Some of the veterans weren’t welcomed when they came home after the war, so that was very emotional for them.”