This Memorial Day, we’re proud to highlight the work of Honor Flight, which provides all-expense-paid trips to Washington D.C. for veterans to visit the war memorials, and to remember their fellow soldiers whose lives were lost.
As one of our Hayes Helps partners, many Hayes Locums employees have volunteered with Honor Flight as guardians for veterans, as they visit and reflect on the memorials built in their honor. This past month, Risk Management Supervisor Sasha Aliff did just that, when she accompanied a Vietnam War veteran on what turned out to be one of the most special days of both of their lives.
Here’s what Sasha had to say about the experience:
What drew you to volunteer with Honor Flight?
The opportunity came up through Hayes Locums, and I thought it was a patriotic thing to do. I have family members who enlisted in the military because it was the only way they could go to college, so I looked at it as a kind of thank you.
What was the experience like for you?
Next to my wedding day and the day my son was born, this was one of the most special things I have ever experienced. To see the gratitude, to be in the presence of these honorable men––I don’t have the words to describe what I felt that day. It was such an honor, and I would do it over again in a heartbeat.
Just to sit on that airplane and take in the greatness I was surrounded by was incredible. We had two World War II veterans on the flight with us, one of whom was 100, the other of whom was 97. On our return home, our flight attendant Sherry shared that she is the mom of three children in the Air Force and is also a Gold Star Mom, which means that one of her sons died in the line of duty and service for our country. You could just feel the emotion on the airplane.
This experience really made me realize that freedom isn’t free. It just isn’t.
Tell us a little bit about the veteran you accompanied.
My veteran, Jerry, was a lab technician and medic in the Army active reserves. He felt he didn’t deserve to be on the Honor Flight because he was in the reserves. But as we got to talking, I asked him about his experiences, and he told me he worked in hospitals, and saw some of the soldiers when they returned home. He shared some very personal stories of how he cared for them, and I could tell it was emotional for him to speak about it. Throughout the day, I reassured him that this was for him too, because he cared for soldiers when they came home.
Can you take us through the events of the trip itself?
The morning of the flight, we got to the terminal and saw a sea of people waiting for us. So right off the bat, it felt special just getting out of the car. Even though we had all been up since 3am, when we got on the plane, there was just pure excitement.
One of the surprises was the water cannon salute from the fire engines at the airport. All the veterans sat in window seats so they could see it, and it was beautiful. Someone asked “is this for us?” and I said, “it sure is!” We had first class treatment the entire way there, from TSA, to the airline staff. When we landed, we found out that the Maryland State Troopers had volunteered on their day off to escort the charter buses into the city. The veterans were a little shocked by how much attention they were getting. People kept asking “is this for us?” They felt so special.
[The charter buses] took us to Iwo Jima Memorial first, where we sang songs for each service together. To hear all their voices bellowing with pride was amazing. There was such comradery.
After that we went to the Women’s Memorial, and then to Arlington Cemetery to see the changing of the guard. In that part of the cemetery, absolute silence is required, but the veterans had been told beforehand that the guards would scuff their shoes as they passed, so that the veterans could hear and know they were being recognized. It was beautiful.
After that, we went to the World War II, the Korean, and the Vietnam War memorials. It was a very emotional experience. One guardian shared that his veteran had physically carried the body of one of the people whose names were up on the wall. All he could remember was his last name and where he was from, but the volunteers were somehow able to find his name on the wall. When he saw it, he put his hands up, almost like he was still holding him.
I knew it was going to be an emotional day, but to see Jerry experience it, and the look on his face throughout the day––you could see how he got quiet as he took all these moments in. He didn’t expect all of this. Throughout the day, I reassured him that it was for him too, because he was there to care for the soldiers when they came home.
When we got back home and walked out of the main airport exit to this whole lineup of the welcome home tribute, it was very special. I told him there were people from my job waiting, and he was going from side to side to shake hands, and everyone was cheering “Jerry! Jerry!”
We were so moved. There were tears the whole day, from the time we boarded the plane, to getting back to that homecoming. It was unbelievable. He told me later that he wants to visit Hayes Locums, and write my boss a letter to tell them how special it was.
What was the most memorable part of your experience for you?
One of the best parts was when we were back on the plane, coming home. You think you’re done, but then they have a mail call, where each veteran gets an envelope full of mail from all the people in their lives, school children, and other service men and women, thanking them for their sacrifice.
When he opened his packet of mail, he had letters from his wife, siblings, and others , thanking him for his sacrifice. When he saw that, he broke down crying, and so did I.
He turned around and unbuckled his seatbelt and gave me a hug, and told me, “This has been one of the best days of my life.”
What do you wish more people understood after volunteering with Honor Flight?
Many of the veterans we accompanied had served in the Vietnam War, and one thing that really hit home with me is that a lot of these veterans were drafted. They didn’t sign up. And for a lot of them, they came home and there wasn’t any welcome. So for them, that homecoming really was their welcome home.
To see them get the recognition, to create these memories that gave them a sense of belonging, of closure, a sense that their country does appreciate them, was incredible.
I was born in a different country, and I’ve never felt so much American pride as I did that day. I had such a sense of fulfillment, in giving my entire day for someone to have this experience. And he’ll never forget it.
I now share a bond with Jerry and his wife and look forward to our continued friendship and dinner dates. I would encourage anyone, if they have the opportunity, to be a part of it.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.