America’s heroes are those who wear the uniform. They are the ones who daily put everything on the line to keep the rest of us safe. And when their service ends, they are to be acknowledged, thanked, and honored. With the support of patriots around the country, Indy Honor Flight does just that. February 28 was its latest opportunity to pay tribute to these heroes.
The Honor Flight organization is “a non-profit … dedicated to providing veterans with honor and closure.” It meets this objective by raising funds to provide veterans free flights to visit memorials in Washington, D.C., in honor of their service to the nation.
Former Indy racer Chip Ganassi lends his racing shop to make this all come together. Attendees see the behind-the-scenes workings of an Indy Car operation, take tours of his shop, and participate in live and silent auctions—and all proceeds fund the flights.
Items for the auctions come from both notable people and businesses. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who always pays tribute to veterans, and who dedicated her recent CPAC speech to our nation’s finest autographed and donated her bestselling book, America by Heart, to the auction. Her father and brother, Chuck Heath, Sr., and Chuck, Jr., donated their book, Our Sarah: Made in Alaska. Chuck, Sr., donated personal pictures of himself with his wife, Sally, Gov. Palin, and the Duck Dynasty stars. These Palin and Heath donations will be used for the June auction and are expected to boost the fundraising for that event.
Former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino, who also ran for Congress, showed his support by donating an autographed copy of his book, Inside the Bubble. Dr. Gina Loudon provided her autographed book, entitled What Women Really Want. These donations, and donations from local businesses, helped make the day successful, as Indy Honor Flight, which is an all-volunteer organization, relies on these auction items, donation tours, and fundraisers throughout the year to finance these flights that give our veterans an opportunity to stand before the landmarks that honor the sacrifices they and other brave soldiers have made.
Indiana resident Laura Hatton was asked to help gather auction items to bring attention to this worthwhile cause. “My role was to help secure items for the auction,” she said. “I had the contacts to do it, so I did.” The goal for February’s event was $45,000 , which they exceeded, raising $47,000.
Hatton said that people there at Chip Ganassi race shop treated the veterans as the heroes they are. “Indy Car racers were there giving autographs, but people were more interested in getting the autographs of World War II vets than autographs from Indy Car racers.”
The special treatment continues upon return from the veterans’ flights to D.C. “When they get home from the flights, they have something similar to a welcome home party … that kind of resembles what takes place when we welcome a vet home from the battlefield,” said Hatton. Along with a crowd to cheer for them, they are met with huge pictures of themselves when they were in the military.
Veterans interested in taking one of these honor flights to D.C. fill out applications, and the oldest veterans—mostly World War II vets—get top priority. This program that began with the first honor flight in May 2005, when “six small planes flew 12 very happy veterans to Manassas, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C,” is now expanding to include Korean and Vietnam War vets.
The organization is now in forty-one states and shows no signs of slowing down. Indy Honor Flight’s start was no more grandiose than the organization’s founding seven years prior. According to Trina Winegardner, Indy Honor Flight Chairman Grant Thompson is a founding member of the Indiana hub, which began September 12, 2012. “When they raised the funds for the first flight, they stood outside of Kroger with coffee cans, asking for donations. When they paid for the first flight, they had a whopping $200 left over.” The Indiana hub has “grown considerably since then,” and, she asserted, “It’s all because of people … who donated to the auction.”
The next flights will take place on April 4, which is a testimony to the organization’s growth and is a milestone for Indy Honor Flight: They have outgrown using one aircraft to transport the veterans and will charter two aircraft to transport 200 veterans on that one day.
The Honor Flight program is proud to have conducted six flights to D.C. in 2014, transporting 635 veterans to the memorials—free of charge. Donations continue to make such an honorable mission possible, and may be made at the Indy Honor Flight website.
Laura Hatton praised the “grassroots activists” who have given themselves to this cause, and as this is her first time participating, she came away inspired. She stated:
It was an absolute honor to see the joy on the faces of America’s greatest heroes as people lined up to hear them tell the stories of our nation’s history as only they can. Indy Honor Flight is a truly honorable program which manages to not only offer the service and gratitude that our vets deserve, but which also manages to touch the hearts of the family and neighbors, who share in the joy that this program brings to all who participate. May God continue to bless this program as they grow and serve those who first volunteered to serve us.
Laura Hatton with Charlie Pike (left) and Tim Bastein (right) of the Indianapolis 500 Gordon Pipers
All photos by Laura Hatton