Honor Flight program sends Del Norte vets to memorials in capital

Lou Goodgame and Hiram "Stan" Jones were still in their seats in Chicago when nearly 100 people came up to shake their hands.

Goodgame, a World War II Army veteran, and Jones, a Korean War Marine Corps veteran, hadn't even landed in Washington, D.C., yet. When the plane finally reached its destination, the pilot announced their presence and the presence of the other veterans who had made the trip with North Coast Honor Flight on April 25.

"We didn't know that was going to happen," Goodgame said. "It was like we were coming back from a war."

Goodgame and Jones were the only Del Norte County veterans who traveled with North Coast Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., for the program's first 2014 trip. Touching down on a Friday evening, Goodgame and Jones visited the Vietnam, Korean War and World War II memorials. They saw the Marine Corps War Memorial and the World War II memorial honoring women in the military.

Goodgame was one of three veterans who placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Jones said Goodgame, a Pelican Bay State Prison chaplain, also gave thanks at every meal.

"There were six marines, three men and three women at the hotel where we stayed," Jones said. "They helped with the wheelchairs."

Honor Flight National began about eight years ago when the World War II Memorial was dedicated, said Steven Justus, coordinator for North Coast Honor Flight. North Coast Honor Flight, which was created in 2011, flies World War II and Korean War veterans living in Humboldt, Del Norte, Mendocino and Trinity counties at no cost to Washington, D.C., to visit their memorials.

Many of the area's elderly veterans don't have the means to return to Washington, D.C., Justus said. So, when they do, viewing the memorials honoring their sacrifice often becomes a spiritual experience, he said.

"One of the things I've heard most from these guys is the comment 'I finally got my parade,'" Justus said. "We have this image of World War II veterans getting this huge parade - that's nonsense. They got home at staggered times and they came home quietly. They went home, took off their uniform and went to work."

During the trip, North Coast Honor Flight brings along a "cadre," which includes Justus, the organization's co-chair and a doctor. A group of volunteers, or guardians, also come along.

"Guardians are people that pay (the organization) $1,000 for the privilege to come and push a wheelchair and carry bags and look after our older vets," Justus said. "By the time we get back it's not unusual for them to say this is life-changing and they would do it again in a heartbeat."

When Goodgame, Jones and the other Honor Flight veterans made their way from Virginia, where they landed, to Washington, D.C., they were met at freeway on-ramp by a motorcycle cop. The officer, lights and sirens blaring, led the group through traffic to each monument. The veterans named him "Fearless."

"People thought we were an ambulance or a fire truck," Goodgame said. "This guy zipped. We were laughing and waving at the people."

Ten active duty Marines met the veterans at the first memorial, Justus said. At one memorial, the veterans participated in a service of remembrance, calling out the names of their comrades who were lost during the wars while a bugler from the White House played "Taps." The veterans also met former Sen. Bob Dole, Justus said.

"It meant a lot to a lot of these guys," he said. "They were more intent on being able to say hello to him and thanking him for his service. He's a disabled veteran. He was a war hero."

For Jones, a Marine, one of his favorite memories of the April trip was an encounter he had with one of the Marines, a sergeant, who was wearing his summer uniform. Jones said he asked the sergeant to get him a uniform jacket.

"I tried his on and it just fit," Jones said. "He said I'll sell you mine and only asked for $80. I gave him $100. That made my trip right there."

Justus said North Coast Honor Flight is planning another trip to Washington, D.C., in October, but the exact dates haven't been scheduled yet. For more information about North Coast Honor Flight and to access applications for veterans and guardians, visitwww.northcoasthonorflight.org.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com.