A newly formed branch of a group that has been in existence since 2005 is looking for Montana World War II veterans who would like a free trip to visit their national memorial, and for people interested in helping pay their way.
Big Sky Honor Flight of Montana officially began operation last week, with the goal of providing a flight to and tours in Washington, including of the World War II Memorial.
Beth Bouley, president of Big Sky Honor Flight Montana, said the trip is an incredible event for veterans of the war, especially at the World War II Memorial itself.
"They are overwhelmed, " she said. "The World War II memorial is, barring none, I think, the most beautiful memorial in Washington. "
Honor Flights began in 2005 when retired U. S. Air Force Capt. Earl Morse, a physician's assistant, began arranging flights for WWII vets to see the memorial, which opened in 2004.
Morse said he started the program as a tribute to the veterans to whom he had provided care.
In its first flight, the program Morse began transported 12 veterans to Washington in small planes, with the pilots paying the flights and escorting the soldiers around the city and to the memorial. By the end of its first year, 137 veterans were transported to Washington and given tours free of charge.
Bouley, who worked with one of North Dakota's three honor flight programs for four years before taking over as president of the new Big Sky program, said that in those four years all World War II veterans, about 1,200 people, who said they wanted to travel to see the memorial got their wish.
She said she first got involved when she went with her own father on an honor flight to Washington.
The trip helped her father open up about things he never had before, Bouley said.
"I didn't know what my dad did during the war, and I learned, and I got to know my dad, " she said.
Many World War II veterans never have opened up about their experiences, Bouley said. The visit to the memorial helps them do that, especially when the others on the trip were there themselves.
The children of veterans of the war may not be able to understand what the experience was like, but, on the trip, the person sitting next to them "knows exactly how it was, " she said.
"That's what's so nice about it. Maybe it finally chases away some of the demons, " Bouley said. "I've seen them cry, seen them laugh; I've seen them open up and talk about it, finally. "
She said the Big Sky Honor Guard is hoping to have its first flight in April, with another flight hoped for this year.
"The big answer to (when) is money, " Bouley said.
She said the organization depends on tax-deductible donations, including a $1,000 Adopt-A-Vet donation which can be made in honor of a World War II veteran, or another veteran, or in honor of all who served in the military, even in the name of a group, business or organization. Honor Flight typically receives donations from individuals, businesses, community groups, schools, fraternal organizations and veterans' service clubs.
The $1,000 roughly covers the expense of taking one veteran to Washington, although any donation is accepted.
"All donations are tax deductible, and this does not happen without donations, and any donation, large or small, is welcome, " Bouley said.
If enough donations are received, the first trip is planned for April, with another hoped for in the fall — although Bouley's hope is a second can be set for May.
The trip is free to any World War II veteran, although the veterans must arrange their own transportation to and from Billings. Others can make the trip with them — Bouley said sometimes the veterans want a family member or friend to help them on the trip — at a cost of $700 per non-veteran.
The trip starts in Billings, with, and the tours start immediately when the plane lands in Washington. En route to the hotel, the veterans tour the Lincoln, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials.
A banquet is held that night at the hotel, then, after breakfast the next morning, "we're off and running, " Bouley said.
After breakfast, the tour spends about two hours at the World War II Memorial, then goes to the Iwo Jima Memorial, then takes a tram tour of Arlington National Cemetary.
Aside from the World War II Memorial tour, the changing of the guard at Arlington usually is a favorite of the veterans on the tour, Bouley added.
If time permits, more touring may be done, then the group flies back, arriving in Billings about 9 p. m.
Bouley said the tour also provides assistance for veterans who need it, and takes along 50 wheelchairs and a medical team.
"We're almost a moving city …, " she said. "We have pretty much everything they would need on that trip. "
Bouley said the flights are booked on a first-come, first-serve basis, regardless of rank or duration of type of service in World War II. The only exception is that priority is given to anyone who served in any war who is terminally ill.
She added that her four years with the program has been a life-changing experience for her. It seems to be for the veterans, as well.
"They are never disappointed in it. They are just in awe, " Bouley said.
Veterans interested in taking the flight to Washington must submit an application, available online at http://www.bigskyhonorflight.org, or by contacting the organization by telephone at (406) 690-4613.
Donations can be sent with checks made out to "Big Sky Honor Flight" and mailed to: Big Sky Honor Flight, P.O. Box 80201, Billings MT 59108, or can be made online via the Montana Community Foundation's secure server at the Big Sky Honor Flight website.
Veterans who want to apply to fly to Washington to see the World War II Memorial can call Big Sky Honor Flight of Montana at (406) 690-4613 or download an application, in .pdf or .doc formats, at the organization's website at http://www.bigskyhonorflights.org. Completed applications need to be mailed to Big Sky Honor Flight, P.O. Box 80201, Billings, MT 59108.
People, groups, organizations or businesses wishing to make donations to the program can mail checks made out to Big Sky Honor Flight to the same address, or make electronic payments via the Montana Community Foundation's secure server through the Big Sky Honor Flight website.