Spring means tulips, picnics and baseball in the parks.
For Greg Furlong, the season means war veterans in Washington.
Furlong, chairman of Leatherstocking Honor Flight in Cobleskill, said the first of the group’s four 2013 trips to the nation’s capital will take place Saturday, May 18. Senior veterans from World War II are given top priority, and Furlong is always looking for new travel companions.
“We’re there and back in one day,” said Furlong, who lives in Cobleskill. “We leave out of Albany, fly to Baltimore. Our bus picks us up in Baltimore; from there we go to the World War II Memorial; from there we go to Arlington National Cemetery; from there we go to the Iwo Jima Memorial.
“Depending on time, we tour Washington and then we go to dinner. Then we go back to BWI (Baltimore-Washington International Airport) and then we go home.
“Time-wise, it’s a long day,” Furlong added. “But it goes pretty quickly.”
600 veterans served
Furlong said his group operates “hubs” that bring veterans to Albany from Schoharie County, Plattsburgh, Vermont and Binghamton, as well as from the Capital Region. During the past four years, 17 Leatherstocking Honor Flights have given 600 veterans trips to Washington. Another Honor Flight group, Patriot Flight, has served Albany and Schenectady veterans in the past.
Furlong believes it’s just important that veterans make the trip. “Wherever we can get World War II veterans, we’ll take them,” he said.
The trips can be sentimental experiences. Veterans, most with “guardians” who are often family members, get the chance to meet brother and sister veterans from their hometowns and elsewhere.
First trip in 2005
The program was conceived by Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force captain. He met veterans in his work, and in spring 2004, often talked with them about the newly-dedicated World War II Memorial. The vets told Morse they would like to see the architectural tribute; by winter, none had made the trip.
Morse understood that physical or financial limitations were preventing the vets from touring Washington. He began his first “network” in 2005, when six private pilots flew out of Springfield, Ohio, and took 12 World War II veterans to the memorial.
The operation has grown since that first Honor Flight. There are now 121 hubs in 41 states, and fundraisers and sponsorships ensure veterans travel for free. According to Springfield’s Honor Flight Network, more than 98,500 World War II vets have traveled to Washington since the program began.
The plan is to later focus efforts on honoring Korean War veterans and then Vietnam War veterans.
Furlong said Leatherstocking buses are always accompanied by motorcycle group and police escorts. There’s always a ceremony at the airport before the senior men and women begin their adventure.
“We usually take about 36 veterans and we take about 18 guardians and two trip leaders,” Furlong said.
Leatherstocking will conduct its second Honor Flight June 8. The other trips will be held in late September and early October. Flight directors want to ensure weather is not too cool — or too hot — for distinguished personnel.
Furlong said veterans can get more information about Honor Flight by either contacting their local county veterans representative — in Schenectady County the rep is William H. Frank, Jr., 377-2423.
Another way is to call Leatherstocking Honor Flight directly at 339-2464. The contact is group veterans coordinator Elizabeth Reinhart of Root, Montgomery County.
Spreading the word
Reinhart said Leatherstocking Honor Flight is always anxious to spread the word about the program.
“I just talked to a man a mile and a half down the road from me and he said, ‘Honor Flight? I’ve never heard of that.’ We’ve been talking about Honor Flight in Schoharie County for five or six years now.”
Reinhart likes the program because veterans in their 80s and 90s finally receive cheers for their service during the 1940s.
“They were never recognized, they were never thanked,” she said. “They didn’t get the welcome home parade. They came home, put their things away and started a new job.”
Reinhart added that while the May Honor Flight is booked, there are still seats available on the June 8 departure.
Furlong likes to remind the veterans he meets that they helped save the free world. And let them know their home communities also appreciate their efforts of long ago.
“We make it a point to let them know this is not just a Leatherstocking endeavor,” Furlong said. “We are a conduit for the respect and gratitude from the community for the veterans.”
Mindful of time
But time is a factor. Furlong and people in other Honor Flights want to see as many World War II veterans as possible travel to Washington. Honor Flight Network says about 800 World War II veterans pass away daily.
Furlong has been on 19 Honor Flights, counting one with Patriot Flight and another with Hudson Valley Honor Flight.
“They never get old,” he said. “It is such an honor. We are so blessed to be in a position to do this. I personally get the opportunity to spend the day with 36 World War II veterans. I hear