116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As the Eastern Iowa Honor Flight nonprofit prepares to resume flying veterans to the nation’s capital for a day this fall, fundraisers for the organization also have been ramping up, including an “honor float” earlier this month down the Wapsipinicon River.
The local organization, along with the national Honor Flight Network, paused flights in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic made travel more dangerous, especially for older adults, which includes most veterans who go on the flights to Washington, D.C.
The national network announced in June it would resume flying again starting Aug. 16. The Cedar Rapids branch has three flights planned for fall: Sept. 21, Oct. 5, and Oct. 19. The group usually does two flights in the spring and two in the fall, but Vice President Jason Brandon said it’s doing three this fall to make up for the lost time.
“It’s probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of, and to be able to get our flights going again and be able to experience that day of pure joy and appreciation for those veterans, that’s why we do this,” Brandon said.
The Eastern Iowa Honor Flight is a nonprofit that charters flights to Washington for veterans, bringing them to various landmarks and war memorials.
As the organization prepares to host the flights, it’s sifting through applications and checking off names on its list of more than 1,000 veterans waiting to make the trip. The program is open to veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, as well as any veteran with a terminal illness.
Eastern Iowa Honor Flight President Dick Bell said veterans also have the option of delaying their scheduled flight until a future date if they don’t feel comfortable or have other conflicts. “If someone doesn’t want to go, we’re asking the next person down the line that’s available to go,” he said.
Even as it’s resuming flights, the honor flight organization is implementing precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19, Bell said. Like on most public transportation, masks are required on the flights and in buses, as well as anywhere indoors where social distancing isn’t possible.
The organization also is requiring veterans who go on the flight to be vaccinated. Bell said that’s a national guideline, and was decided in the interest of safety.
“The safety of all veterans and all people going on the flight is the utmost importance, so that’s what we have to go by,” he said.
Each flight costs about $85,000, Brandon said. The organization has money on hand to fund the flights, but Brandon said organizers are always happy to get donations to keep the flights going.
While many donations remained steady during the pandemic, Brandon said the community events that were a big revenue source were mostly canceled. But the lapse in fundraising didn’t hurt the organization too much as it didn’t spend much money when the flights weren’t running, Brandon said.
“Very quickly here in the last few months we’ve seen a lot of things resurface that were there before, so it almost took right back off from where it was,” he said.
On July 17, over 250 people with kayaks and canoes flocked to the Wakpicada Natural Area in Central City for an “honor float,” which raised about $6,500 for the flights. The group floated from Central City to Waubeek.
Many attendees sported military apparel — some were veterans, others families of veterans, and others were outdoor enthusiasts who came to support the cause.
Registration was $25, and the kayakers received a swag bag, drink tokens and lunch on a sandbar during the float. All the money raised went to the honor flight.
The fundraiser was the third annual honor float, and the crowd was much larger than in years past, the float’s organizer Deb Holton said.
“This is like five times as big as our first year,” Holton said. “Our first year was like 70 people.”
Many of the people who went on the honor float had personal connections to the flights. Ben Demuth went on a flight as a chaperone for his father-in-law.
"It’s a really special experience, it really is,“ he said. ”We do what we can to support the veterans and support the honor flight.“
Hope Long, who went on the float, said her grandfather, an Army veteran, went on the flight in recent years and said it was the best experience of his life.
“When he landed we were at the airport to meet him, and he was a bawling mess,” she said. “Him and his brother were both in the service and so they went together on the honor flight.”
When veterans return on the flight, a ceremony is held to welcome them home, in which dozens and sometimes hundreds of people come to the airport to honor the returning veterans. Long said that was it was an emotional experience to honor veterans in that way.
“I think that every veteran should be able to do that and not have to worry and be honored,” she said.
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