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The Honor Flight experience

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While most of us were collecting candy Halloween weekend, Bill Hires of New Limerick was busy collecting some amazing memories.

Hires, a 92-year-old World War II veteran, got his first-ever glimpse of the some of our nation’s greatest monuments thanks to the Honor Flight Network.

Hires, who served with the Army Air Corp from 1943 to 1945, worked as a radio technician both in the U.S. and in China. One of his main jobs included helping with the homing devices for planes, directing planes back and forth from the Chinese coast. By 1945, Bill had earned the rank of Corporal and was awarded seven different decorations and citations, including two Bronze Stars and a Good Conduct medal.

And now, thanks to the Honor Flights, Hires and other veterans like him, can visit Washington, D.C. and its monuments completely free of charge. The local hub, Honor Flight Maine, coordinated Hires’ trip.

“I had been to Washington before on business, but absolutely nothing like this,” explained Hires, who said the camaraderie on this trek was one-of-a-kind.

“We had a nurse with us who was 99-years-old,” he added.

Hires flew from Portland to Baltimore along with 45 other Maine veterans and then traveled to Annapolis where they were treated to dinner at their hotel.

“The hotel put on a dinner for us that was wonderful,” explained Hires. “And then, the next day we started the tour and that was just so well orchestrated. They had everything timed so perfectly.”

The veterans-turned-tourists managed to pack plenty of sight-seeing into their weekend. Hires said they saw Fort McHenry where Francis Scott Key penned his famous anthem, and they watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

“And the most important monument [for me] was the World War II monument,” he says, while his eyes grew misty. “Oh, that was marvelous. It was just beautiful.”

“The second most impressive for me was the Lincoln Memorial,” he added. “I always had really wanted to see that.”

Seeing all these sights in one day is no small feat, especially for a fleet of aging veterans. But thanks to volunteers with Honor Flights, each veteran has their own personal guardian for the entire trip. Powered by personal donations, doctors and physician’s assistants also travel with the group.

“The guide that traveled with Bill was so nice,” said Diane Hires, Bill’s wife. “All along the way, he kept sending us pictures.”

Diane said she initially had some reservations about the Honor Flight process, wondering how it would work especially since Bill would need a wheelchair to navigate the sightseeing schedule. But the Honor Flight Maine volunteers were amazing, she said and gave Bill and all the other veterans 5-star treatment for their special trip.

“I just can’t say enough good about them,” added Diane.

As amazing as the trip itself was, the homecoming was extra special, too.

When the veterans landed back at the Portland airport on Oct. 30, hundreds of well-wishers, including Gov. LePage, were there to greet them.

“We were just amazed,” said Bill. “It was overwhelming to see that many people turn out.”

Diane agreed.

“There were kids walking up to him and giving him pictures they had drawn,” she explained. “It was just so warm and welcoming.”

Also part of the homecoming: one more mail call for each of the veterans.

And as part of the mail call, each veteran received a manila envelope stuffed full of cards and letters — some from friends and family, some from strangers — all expressing their appreciation for his service.

“I think it took him two days to read all the notes he got,” quips Diane.

Settled back at home with time to rest and reflect, Bill is quick to say how amazing his trip was and how grateful he is for the opportunity. But it isn’t the grand monuments that jump to mind first when asked what his favorite part of the trip was; the volunteers who came to the airport to make that homecoming special take first place.

“It was all good,” he recalls. “But nothing could match that homecoming.”

 

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