Veterans participating in Honor Flight Austin’s 68th trip stand outside the national World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. After joining 39 other veterans on the flight, Meadowlakes City Council member and Vietnam veteran Jess Lofgreen is sponsoring a flight to offer the same opportunity to other Highland Lakes veterans. Courtesy photo
As Meadowlakes resident and Vietnam veteran Jess Lofgreen walked to his gate in the Austin airport in the fall of 2021, he and 39 other U.S. veterans on Honor Flight Austin’s 68th trip to Washington, D.C., were met with a standing ovation from the other travelers.
“Every airport we went to, people stopped what they were doing and applauded us,” Lofgreen recalled. “It was the most emotional I’ve ever been. I decided at that very minute I was going to do everything I could so every veteran could have this experience.”
Six months later, Lofgreen is making good on his promise by sponsoring an Honor Flight for other Highland Lakes veterans.
Honor Flight Austin has been serving as the Central Texas branch of the national nonprofit organization since 2012. At both the regional and national levels, Honor Flight is committed to honoring U.S. veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam by sending them on an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C.
During each weekend-long excursion, participants visit national war memorials, including those for World War II, the U.S. Marine Corps, and Vietnam veterans. They also visit national monuments like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where they witness the emotional changing-of-the-guard ceremony.
The Austin branch provides this opportunity to veterans living in 14 Central Texas counties, including Burnet and Llano. In addition to veterans who served in the aforementioned wars, the organization recently broadened its requirements to include those who served during the Cold War Era from December 1941 through May 1975.
According to Steve Quakenbush, CEO of Honor Flight Austin, the experience often offers a sense of healing to the participants.
“A lot of our veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, were spit on and called baby killers when they came home,” he said. “But with this, they get to see an America that loves them, cares about them, and wants to honor them.”
That exact sentiment motivated Lofgreen and his wife to sponsor a flight. Lofgreen served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam from 1968-69.
On March 24, Quakenbush and other Honor Flight Austin representatives met with more than three dozen Highland Lakes veterans during an informative session. The meeting was originally planned to be held in the Meadowlakes city offices but was relocated to the community’s Hidden Falls Bistro & Bar because of the large number of locals expressing an interest in attending.
The goal is to get about 40 veterans from within the area on the flight sponsored by Lofgreen, who is also the Place 1 councilor on the Meadowlakes City Council. The flight is scheduled for late September 2022.
“(Quakenbush) said, to the extent possible, he would try to put every one of our (Meadowlakes) veterans on that flight, and we’ve got about 37 people that I know of that are hoping to go,” Lofgreen said. “If there are World War II veterans, Korean veterans, or Vietnam veterans who haven’t gone on a flight yet, they will receive priority. That’s the protocol Honor Flight uses.”
Those with health issues or eldery veterans are always put on the top of the approved list.
“Medical always takes priority,” Quakenbush said. “We’ll never leave a veteran behind.”
During the March 24 session, attendees were given information on what to expect on each flight, including the protocol for those with health issues or veterans who will use a wheelchair on the flight. In those instances, Honor Flight ensures each veteran is assigned a volunteer, referred to as a guardian by the organization, to assist with their specific needs.
“We do allow a family member, a son, daughter, granddaughter, to come along as a guardian,” Quakenbush said. “We don’t let spouses come though, unless that spouse is a qualified veteran. That’s because we’ve found that, if a spouse comes along, the veteran spends time with the spouse and doesn’t bond with the other 39 veterans.”
Although spots on Lofgreen’s trip are filling up quickly, Quakenbush encourages eligible veterans to apply for a flight, noting the emotional significance the experience offers.
“I’ve been on 37 flights, and every time a veteran opens up, it usually ends in tears and you can see them letting go of all that tension,” he said. “There’s a lot of combat veterans that don’t want to talk about it, but when they do finally let all that go, you can see the change in them. We’re not therapists, we don’t try to pretend we are, but these flights bring a magic that you can’t describe.”
“If I could categorize it, it’s the trip of a lifetime for a veteran,” he said.
Eligible veterans can apply for a flight at honorflightaustin.org. In addition to an online veteran application, information on how to sponsor a flight and other ways of donating is also available on the website.
Since 1868, America has recognized Memorial Day as a time to honor the U.S. military personnel who died in service. Until 1970, it was observed on May 30, no matter which day of the week. Now, it is observed on the last Monday of May, which in 2022 is May 30.