Sep. 9—When the pandemic started 18 months ago, it grounded the Honor Flight program for veterans across New England. But the next flight, the 59th one in the local program, remains ready for take-off this Sunday.
"The vets I've spoken with, they are very anxious to go," said Joe Byron, founder of Honor Flight New England. "They always tell us they consider this one of the best days of their lives, behind getting married and having children. We recognize what they've done for us, and it's really truly a lesson in humility because not one of them ever thinks that they've done anything special."
Over the last 12 years, Honor Flight New England has sent 2,104 veterans on 58 missions to the nation's capital for a day-long trip to visit the war memorials built in their honor.
Manchester Assistant Police Chief Steve Mangone, who assists Byron with organizing and preparing for the flights, said the nonprofit's mission is to "honor local war veterans, one mission at a time."
"Some honor flight chapters are making the decision to call off their trips," said Mangone. "Some have gone in the last few weeks. But the consensus among the veterans we've talked to is we want to go. Let's do the precautions, let's be safe ... but let's go."
"We mandate they all be vaccinated," said Byron. "For every veteran that comes with us there's a guardian that accompanies them, and we bring a medical team."
Byron said 25 veterans will make the trip to D.C. this Sunday, Sept. 12, the first for Honor Flight New England since November 2019.
Several veterans whose flights were canceled due to the pandemic have died in the nearly two years since the last flight.
"We lost at least seven," said Byron. "We had told a few they were gonna go on a flight last year, but they passed away before we could get them on this flight. We have one veteran flying with us Sunday who is terminally ill ... his daughter says he is holding on to make this trip.
Byron said he joined the organization after learning there were no flights available to East Coast veterans. Honor Flight New England's inaugural flight took off on June 13, 2009, with 50 veterans on board.
"The oldest one we've taken was 103, and she just turned 105 this year," said Byron. "The youngest we took was a World War II veteran who went into the service at 14 1/2 ."
"Some of the stories they've shared over the years, about having their dad forge their certificates to get them in at 14 or 15, are amazing," said Mangone. "Doing whatever they needed to do to get them in.
Byron said this year's flight will depart out of Boston at 8:50 a.m. Sunday, and return to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport around 11 that night. Veterans making the trip will start to gather at the Manchester Airport Crash Fire Rescue building at 402 Kelly Ave. between 5:45 and 6 a.m. He and Mangone hope people show up to give the group a strong sendoff, similar to ones in the past when the group flew out of Manchester.
"They deserve a sendoff and appreciation for their service," said Mangone. "When they came home in '44, '45, '46 or whenever it was, they got off a ship, they got off a plane, or got off a train and they just went home and picked up the next day. They never had any kind of fanfare, and they didn't complain."
For more information about Honor Flight New England, including how to donate, visit the program's website at https://honorflightnewengland.org/donate/.