Nearly 100 World War II veterans wanting to travel to Washington, D.C., in April to visit “their” World War II Memorial received significant support Wednesday from the West End Walmart.
The support came at the directive of store manager Kevin Flock, who told his community events coordinator to “take care of them.”
The Walmart store, which has a history of supporting veterans’ issues, including the Veterans Cemetery in Laurel, has pledged to host bake sales, silent auctions and barbecue lunches to raise money for the trip. All proceeds will go toward underwriting the inaugural journey of Big Sky Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
Walmart has also pledged to help trip organizers apply for grants available through its corporation. In addition, it will distribute donation containers in its Billings stores.
“We’re just so proud of our military,” community events coordinator Flo McMasters said. “We just had six sales associates return from Iraq. They all came home safe and sound. This touches us in a very personal way.”
A Montana chapter of the Honor Flight Network was activated in October to honor the state’s World War II veterans.
Some 16.1 million Americans served in military uniform during World War II. The youngest of those veterans are 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.
“We are flat running out of time, said Bert Gigoux, a member of the Big Sky Honor Flight’s board of directors. “They won’t be around much longer. It would be nice to know we have the support of the community for this.”
The purpose of Big Sky Honor Flight is to take World War II veterans to the memorial free of charge. The chartered flight will cost about $150,000 and will be paid for with donations. To date, the group has raised about $8,000, treasurer Chris Reinhard said. The largest contribution to date was a $2,000 donation from Disabled American Veterans.
Gigoux is challenging every business to contribute $1,000 to the cause as part of the organization’s Adopt A Vet program. Time is of the essence, he said, as plans for the flight must be made in January.
To date, 67,000 veterans nationwide have traveled to the capital to see the World War II Memorial that was erected in their honor and dedicated in May 2004. Thirty-three states now have the Honor Flight program.
The program was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician assistant with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Ohio, a retired Air Force captain and private pilot. Morse wanted to honor the veterans he had taken care of for nearly three decades. Many did not have the financial wherewithal, strength or stamina to go, so Morse decided to help.
As interest swelled, Morse enlisted help from other private pilots. Word spread, more veterans wanted to participate, and the Honor Flight Network was born.
The plan is to take a group of veterans to the Memorial every April until every World War II veteran in Montana has made the trip. The North Dakota Honor Flight has made 11 trips to the memorial.