Bob Miele, 92, and Don Rogers, 90, are World War II veterans and long-time residents of Windham. Neither had seen the memorial that commemorates and honors those who served the country selflessly and courageously during America’s involvement in the Second World War (1941 – 1945). Enter Honor Flight Maine.
Honor Flight is a national non-profit organization that connects America’s war veterans with their memorial in Washington D.C. Honor Flight Maine board member Paul Roy said that 69 veterans made the trip to the nation’s capital in recent weeks. Miele was included in a group of 27 in late August. Rogers traveled with a group of 42 Veterans last weekend.
Roy said some parts of the nearly two day whirlwind tour are pretty emotional. Groups leave Portland Jetport on Southwest Airlines (a supporter of the honor flight program) and land in Baltimore where the vets are greeted by throngs of well-wishers. Miele said this was the highlight of his trip as he and fellow veterans received hundreds of salutes, handshakes and warm, very genuine welcoming words, mostly “Thank you for your service.” The greeters included service people in full dress military uniforms, honor guards, VFW and American Legion representatives, Shriners and even cheerleaders. Most moving, said Miele, was the band of 15 to 20 bagpipes who played and provided escort to a waiting motor coach. Here the bagpipers gave way to the official escorts for the bus – Vietnam veterans on motorcycles. The caravan proceeded into Washington, much like a presidential motorcade.
Miele and Rogers, both ambulatory, were never-the-less provided with wheelchairs for the lengthy journey through several memorial parks, assisted by their volunteer guardians – daughter Tina Miele-Pomerleau accompanied Miele, son Scott was with Rogers.
Roy said the group is treated like royalty throughout the trip. They strolled the World War II, Korean, Vietnam and Iwo Jima memorials. At Arlington National Cemetery, three veterans from the Maine group participated in the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The return flight to Maine featured mail call. Each veteran received several cards and letters from admirers around the country, adults and children, who wanted to thank and connect with Veterans. Rogers commented, “It’s a heck of a thing when you can’t even read a letter,” a reference to the tears that had momentarily blurred his vision while perusing his mail.
The two Windham veterans said the return trip was filled with the same pomp and ceremony as the send-off. Portland Jetport erupted in cheers, handshakes and hugs from the throngs of adults and children that came to greet their arrival.
More Maine honor flights are planned for the near and distant future. Nationally over 16,000 World War II veterans are on a waiting list. Thousands more are expected to apply in 2016. Roy said funding for the trips comes primarily from donations made by individuals and fraternal organizations. “The program is run by volunteers,” he said, “and every cent goes to Veterans to see their memorials.”
Roy explained that Veterans are flown on a first-come, first-serve basis. The top priority is given to World War II veterans and all other veterans with a terminal illness. Second priority goes to Korean War veterans, and then Vietnam War veterans, “…who are very important to us considering how underappreciated their service was.”
Miele and Rogers spoke with the Eagle wearing their trip tees and caps, mementos of appreciation from Honor Flight Maine. The back of their T-shirts said, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read this in English, thank a Veteran.”
Rogers, who felt "duty bound" left high school to join the US Army Air Corp and trained to be a fighter pilot. He finished his studies in the service. Miele became a radar operator and served in the European theater.