Dave Benbenick clearly remembers his first experience as a greeter for an Honor Flight about 10 years ago.
He was working at Dulles International Airport as a USO volunteer and his manager asked him if he could stick around because there was an Honor Flight coming in.
“I didn’t know much about it and I didn’t know what I would say or do,” he said. “As soon as I got to the gate, the Southwest gate agent announced that the arriving flight has a number of World War II veterans on it.”
The Honor Flight Network flies veterans from all over the country to visit THEIR memorials in Washington DC free of charge.
Benbenick was the only person on that day specifically to greet the veterans. He watched businessmen come off the plane and scurry on their way, then a few families.
“Then I saw a man about my father’s age, 90, walking purposely,” said Benbenick.
We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by – Will Rogers
“I started applauding and cheering and the people lined up waiting for their flight joined me in cheering for our heroes. That got me hooked.”
Ten years later, Benbenick’s role has grown much like the Honor Flight program. On a recent Saturday morning, more than 100 people formed a corridor, waving flags and cheering as an honor flight arrived from Milwaukee into Dulles Airport.
A 4-H club from T. Clay Wood Elementary School was there, along with Cub Scouts from Pack 1154 at Sanders Corner Elementary School and Girl Scouts from Troop 2731 at Cub Run Elementary School.
“I have been doing Honor Flights for about six years,” said Colleen Scallion, Honor Flights coordinator for Dulles. “I’m getting older and I have a little more free time and I wanted to get into some volunteer work. I went up to BWI a couple of times to greet active-duty troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and the commute was hellacious.
“I just stumbled upon Honor Fight and that same year I went to Normandy and after that, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. This is definitely what I want to do.’”
Scallion said the program started small and with a very specific clientele.
“At that time, flights were predominantly made up of World War II vets,” she said. “So, the great news is that we have brought so many of the World War II vets that they have opened it up to Korean and now we’re even seeing Vietnam vets.”
She said the delay of getting a WWII memorial in Washington was a catalyst in the start of Honor Flights.
“It was founded because the WWII Memorial was the last memorial to be by that time most of them were already in their 80s and there was a huge rush to get them here to see their memorial,” Scallion said. “It was started by a gentleman who was a vet himself and he worked at a VA hospital in Ohio. He was asking his patients if they were going to go see their memorial and they had no way of getting here.
Since America felt it was important to build a memorial to the service and the ultimate sacrifice of her veterans, the Honor Flight Network believes it’s equally important that these Veterans actually get to visit and experience THEIR memorial.
“He started with just a little prop plane and he brought guys here himself. The first flight I think was three planes and about six veterans and it has just grown to be a national movement and we have clubs all across the United States.”
The first person off the plane at Dulles was a Red Cross representative, clearly looking for someone in particular. He found Benbenick, right by the door as he often is, with oxygen tanks for the veterans who need fresh supplies for their visit to the monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C.
“Dave provides the oxygen, and he has done more flights than any volunteers I know of in the whole organization,” Scallion said.
Benbenick said his role just kind of evolved as he greeted more flights and recognized the need.
“I started greeting one flight a week, and one day there was another guy who was always there and we started talking,” Benbenick said. “He said he was one of the organizers of Honor Flights and he pointed out that a lot of them need oxygen. So, I started making arrangements to pick up oxygen tanks.”
Now, a typical day for Benbenick could include trips to Dulles, Reagan National and Baltimore-BWI airports, as well as trips to hotels that are housing the vets. Oxygen tanks are not allowed on commercial flights, so the vets use condensers that need to be recharged during their stay, so they can use them again on their return.
“I have asthma,” Benbenick said. “I understand what it feels like to have an elephant sitting on your chest. I don’t want one veteran to miss his big day because he needs oxygen.”
Benbenick said he was drafted during the Vietnam War but was rejected because of his asthma. He did, however, have his own special Honor Flight experience a few years back.
“My father lived in Florida, and the waiting list is so long he never would have made it,” Benbenick said. “I was able to arrange for him to fly to Dayton and come out on an Honor Flight from there.
“My mother and I had been trying for years to talk him into it. When it was done, he said it was the second-best day of his life. The best was the day he married my mother.”
About two-thirds of the way through the crowd, right between the Cub Scouts and the Girl Scouts, Rodney Schultz broke into a rousing rendition of “America.” His son, Glenn, stopped pushing the wheelchair to let his father finish. By the time he was done, every person was applauding – and most eyes was tearing up.
“It was fun in the beginning, to watch the veterans when there were just a few people there to greet them,” Benbenick said. “When we would cheer and applaud, they would turn around and look behind them to see who we were cheering for. When the realized it was then, that look is what got me hooked.