Beginning in September 2012, Big Sky Honor Flight transported 753 Montana veterans to our nation’s capital and home again. The final flight returned to Billings Monday with 77 honored veterans.
Thousands of Montanans made this trip of a lifetime possible for Montana veterans of World War II. At least 150 fundraising events were held by students, community organizations and others. Businesses large and small stepped up to help sponsor the trips to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. All told, more than $1.4 million was donated to make nine, nonstop charter flights between Billings and Washington, D.C.
A team of health care professionals accompanied every flight to ensure the wellbeing of elderly veterans, some over the age of 100. The Honor Flight ferried eight terminally ill veterans. The nine flights required 540 wheelchairs and 300 oxygen tanks for the veterans.
Neither age nor infirmity deterred the Montana vets and their troop of family and volunteer escorts. In a 37-hour trip they hit all the high points of a monument tour, including the Lincoln, Roosevelt, Korean War and Vietnam memorials; made a transcontinental round trip and were greeted in both Washington and Billings with fire truck water canon salutes, bands and throngs of cheering citizens. Montana’s entire congressional delegation turned out to shake hands with the veterans.
Impressive as the Honor Flight numbers are, the individual veteran’s stories are even more remarkable. Gazette reporter Cindy Uken and videographer Lloyd Blunk helped the veterans share those stories of courage, pride, loss and grief with folks all across Montana. Gazette readers learned much about how World War II affected the men and women who fought for America.
“I’m just absolutely blown away,” John “Spook” Isotola said as he gazed upon the World War II Memorial Monday. An Able Seaman in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps who served in the Philippines, Isotola was hospitalized with tuberculosis for nearly 17 months after his military discharge. He is now 83.
“I am grateful,” Sarah Styger told Uken when asked about the Honor Flight. Quiet and modest about her U.S. Navy service during World War II, Styger, 89, has been an active Billings RSVP volunteer for 25 years.
It would be impossible to name everyone responsible for the amazing success of Big Sky Honor Flight, but the Honor Flight Committee deserves special recognition. President Tina Vauthier, vice president Bill Kennedy, secretary Chris Reinhard, treasurer Kathy Shannon and board members George Blackard, Burt Gigoux, Becky Hillier, Charlie Reed, Ray Robison and Cory Moore pulled together. They engaged our entire state in this wonderful tribute to our living World War II veterans.
We salute all the veterans and the Big Sky Honor Flight. You have made Montanans extremely proud.