County donors, volunteers crucial to Honor Flight

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

When Honor Flight of Southern Indiana volunteer Pat O’Keefe asks for donations for the organization, people in Dubois County are happy to help.

Honor Flight is a national program that flies senior-aged veterans and a guardian to Washington, D.C., for a day of sightseeing so they can see the memorials dedicated to their service. The entire day is free for the veterans, though guardians must pay a minimum $500 donation to offset the cost of their trip.

For Honor Flight of Southern Indiana, flights leave out of Evansville Regional Airport and each Honor Flight costs $96,000.

Since Honor Flight of Southern Indiana began in 2014, roughly 25 regular donors from Dubois County have contributed $150,000 to the program. Dubois County also has a strong volunteer presence in the organization. Of the roughly 125 volunteers that organize Honor Flight of Southern Indiana, 20 are from Dubois County.

O’Keefe attributes the county’s willingness to help to the large veteran population. O’Keefe himself is a Dubois County veteran, and current estimates say he’s one of about 3,100 living veterans in the county.

“We’re a very, very veteran rich county,” O’Keefe said. “The people we lost (to war) have been significant, and we’re still losing them.”

Dubois County is one of 14 counties covered by Honor Flight of Southern Indiana. Since the program began, 624 veterans from the 14 counties have flown to Washington, D.C., on eight flights. The next flight, which will take roughly 80 veterans, is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 3.

Although the flight and the tour of Washington, D.C., are the focus of Honor Flight, O’Keefe said there is much more to the program. Volunteers run year-round fundraising campaigns, organize events and help maintain about 145 wheelchairs. On the Honor Flight, O’Keefe said, every veteran gets a wheelchair whether he or she plans to use it or not.

“Traveling with wheelchairs and loading them into cargo bays doesn’t work very well,” O’Keefe said.

Almost every flight, the chairs bang around and parts break. It’s up to volunteers to fix them.

Volunteers also serve as bus captains in Washington, D.C., run a training for the guardians — usually a friend or family member of the veterans — who go on the trip, organize a dinner that takes place the Thursday before the flight, put together photo albums from the trip that are given to each veteran and organize the homecoming celebration that takes place at the airport when veterans return. As they disembark the plane, the veterans parade through a cheering crowd that fills the airport terminal to welcome them home. O’Keefe co-chairs the committee that plans the welcome.

“I do it because I am a veteran, and I do it because our veterans never got a welcome home,” he said. “There were parades after World War II, but the veterans weren’t here for them. They were on boats. The Korean War veterans never got a welcome home. The Vietnam veterans never got a welcome home.”

Honor Flight is completely volunteer run, so all the money donated to the program goes to the flight and the events that veterans enjoy. Anyone interested in donating or volunteering can find information online at honorflightsi.org or can contact O’Keefe at 812-630-2567 or via email at pjo2567@yahoo.com.




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