A statewide fundraising effort designed to send Montana’s World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II Memorial is gaining momentum.
To date, at least $40,000 in cash and pledges has been raised to help underwrite the inaugural flight that will take 100 veterans to the nation’s capital. While that’s twice as much as organizers had collected a few weeks ago, it is still short of the $150,000 they need to make the trip.
“We’re on our way, but we’re not getting the money in as quickly as we’d hoped,” said Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy, a member of the Big Sky Honor Flight board of directors. “But we will get there.”
A Montana chapter of the Honor Flight Network was activated in October to honor the state’s World War II veterans. Thirty-three states now have the Honor Flight program. The purpose is to take veterans to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall free of charge on a chartered flight. Montana has the second-highest number of veterans per capita, behind Alaska.
High school students have joined in the fundraising efforts while some individuals have donated $1,000 to adopt a vet. Businesses are also jumping on the bandwagon. At least $3,500 has been dropped into collection jugs at Wal-Mart in Billings and the West End store plans to host a barbecue for veterans later this month, Kennedy said.
If the money isn’t raised in time for a spring flight, the group will plan for an early autumn flight. North Dakota raised $1.7 million to send 11 flights to the nation’s capital. Wyoming raised about $1 million to send six flights.
“We’re going to get there,” Kennedy said. “We need the small fundraisers, but we need the big benefactors, too.”
Those selected for the inaugural flight will be on a first-come, first-served basis. The only exceptions are veterans of any war or conflict who are terminally ill. They have priority.
To date, more than 125 Montana veterans have applied to make the trip.
Some 16.1 million Americans served in military uniform during World War II. The youngest of those veterans still living are now in their mid-80s. There are 18,000 World War II veterans in Montana. Based on 2008 statistics, World War II veterans are dying nationally at the rate of about 1,000 per day.
Organizers of the Big Sky Honor Flight say, given the statistics, time is of the essence to make the trip a reality.
The Shepherd Lion’s Club is challenging all businesses and residents to contribute to the effort. The club will match all donations up to $1,000. They’re calling it the Shepherd Challenge.
“We’re a small club but we want to do everything we can to help get our men and women to the memorial,” said Agnes Beddes.
For more information about the Shepherd Challenge, call Beddes at 406-698-1247 or 373-5363.