More than 60 years after maneuvering Army leaders through war-torn Europe during World War II, jeep driver Robert Markert got to visit the monuments honoring him and other veterans.
"It's made me feel kind of funny. I tear up when I hear the national anthem or 'Taps'," said Markert, an Amsterdam resident who visited the WWII Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C., as a guest of the Honor Flight Network.
Drafted right after turning 18, Markert joined the nation-searing war that took soldiers across Tunisia, the volcanic island of Iwo Jima, Normandy and the winter forests of Germany. He ended up in a ditch when German artillery fire flew over his jeep while he was driving a captain near the front lines to search for ammunition drops. He drove through cities with "nothing but piles of bricks where buildings used to be."
When he came home, Markert went back to his job in the local carpet mill for 40 years.
"They just dropped everything to go serve their country," said Linda Snyder, a Niskayuna Teachers Association retiree who reaches out to local unions to generate interest and donations for Honor Flight. Her dad, a WWII airplane mechanic, was a guest of the program last year.
"This program lets our veterans revel in their accomplishments for our country," said Lee Cutler, NYSUT secretary-treasurer who oversees social justice issues for the union. "It's also a critical lesson for our children that we can never forget the sacrifices our veterans have made."
Many WWII veterans are now in their 80s, and more than 1,000 are dying every day, lending a sense of urgency to the Honor Flight Network's mission. Honor Flight is in 33 states and has hosted more than 36,000 veterans. The nonprofit organization, which is supported in part by students, teachers, staff and local teacher unions, has New York hubs in the Leatherstocking region, Rochester, Buffalo, Troy and Long Island. Veterans are taken to airports with a motorcade escort, then feted by a Color Guard ceremony. School bands perform.
Canton social studies teacher Trish Montville and her students traveled four hours to Albany Airport to meet a WWII Navy veteran sponsored by the Canton Central TA.
"The kids were captivated by his story," said Montville. "In teaching the Civil War, you can't really put a face to the history. But with WWII veterans, I tell my students, 'They were only about five years older than you when they went to war.' They fought in a war that changed the world forever."
Honor Flight veterans have included a paratroop er who was taken prisoner; a Tuskegee pilot, one of America's first black military airmen; a nose gunner; and a gun turret operator from the USS Missouri who watched the Japanese surrender to General Douglas MacArthur.
To raise money for Honor Flight Buffalo, Kristine Bajdas, Grand Island senior library clerk, sold patriotic paper hearts on which students and teachers wrote the names of a loved one in the service, past or present. The school sponsored three veterans; two students were chosen to serve as guardians, accompanying the veterans to D.C.
"We were the first school in western New York to partner with Honor Flight, and the first to have students accompany the vets," said Bajdas, a member of the Grand Isle SRP Association. Ongoing recognition includes a Veteran's Day display of personal memorabilia from veterans, including current faculty members and a head custodian.
In Canandaigua, special ed teacher Lori McJury accompanied her father, a WWII Army veteran, on an Honor Flight. He died less than a year later.
"That is the best memory I have," said McJury, a Canandaigua TA member. Her husband also took his father on the same trip. "The veterans were treated like the heroes that they are."
When they returned that night, a thousand people were waiting, holding balloons and signs that read: This is the welcome you were entitled to. "The tears were flowing," she said.
McJury incorporated the experience into her unit, having students write personal notes thanking veterans for their sacrifice. "Mail call" is held on each trip, just like in the service, with letters delivered to vets.She continues to raise money at her school through dress-down days and penny collections.
West Seneca schools raise funds through Send A Veteran Athletic Games, where kids pay to compete. West Seneca TA member Michael Barone, a social studies teacher, started the program after reading in NYSUT United that donations were needed for the Honor Flight Network. His grandfather, who raised him since he was 2, was a WWII vet. Last spring, Barone took students to the WWII Memorial and told them about his grandfather and other veterans.
"It's our duty as citizens to show honor and respect to them," he said.