Dave Smith, founder of Honor Flight San Diego, toasts team leaders. Photo by Chris Stone
Dave Smith, founder of Honor Flight San Diego, toasts team leaders at a Del Mar Hilton meeting. Photo by Chris Stone

You know the preparation needed for a week’s vacation or even a day at the beach. Imagine taking dozens of people aged 80 to over 100 years old on a trip across the country. Plus a guardian for each.

Traveling with about 90 wheelchairs, name tags, lanyards, T-shirts, certificates, oxygen tanks, COVID tests, oximeters, glucometers, ice chests for buses, snacks, greeting cards, challenge coins, pins and emergency contact cards.

Planning for volunteers, a charter flight, hotel rooms, buses, meals, TSA documents, airplane seating arrangements, airport and hotel shuttles, hotel room assignments, programs for two banquets and tour times to memorials and Arlington National Airport.

And anticipating all of the tripping hazards along the way.

This is the tip of the iceberg for taking 85 veterans and their guardians on a three-day Washington, D.C. trip, starting Friday. They will tour memorials and pay respects – all arranged by Honor Flight San Diego. The trip is free for veterans. Guardians pay $800 to assist.

Julie Brightwell, chairman of Honor Flight, (left) and Holly Shaffner, vice chairman, discuss logistics. Photo by Chris Stone

The most challenging logistic?

“The number of logistics,” says Julie Brightwell, laughing. She’s chair of the local Honor Flight hub, one of 130 in the national network. Brightwell has been the local chairperson since 2017.

Friday’s flight will be Brightwell’s 51st, including her assistance on Honor Flights out of Columbus, Ohio, before moving to San Diego.

Logistics involves getting to the airport by 5:30 a.m. (Some are staying in a nearby hotel to smooth that arrival.) Checking in luggage and proceeding through TSA checkpoints. Getting people in the right seat according to medical need. Transports by wheelchairs. Feeding the veterans and staff on the plane. Then shuttling them to hotels and getting settled in their rooms before the night’s banquet.

Don’t forget the 6 a.m. breakfast Saturday before filling four buses for a 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. journey to Arlington National Cemetery, U.S. Air Force Memorial, U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National Museum of the U.S. Navy.

Honor Flights from other cities will be in D.C. this weekend, doing their own touring.

Said Dave Smith, founder and former chairman of Honor Flight San Diego: “We want to be very efficient so that we can accomplish as many stops as possible, a very tight schedule to the minute.”

And not just efficiently — but “how we’re going … to do it safely. Logistically, we are laser focused on the safety.” (Many veterans have mobility or medical challenges.)

Thanks to experience, senior organizers know the pitfalls at each stop — literally.

This includes steering travel wheelchairs amid bumps in walkways, navigating around holes that potentially could cause spills.

“We’re going to brief (guardians, telling them): OK, we’re going to come to this memorial,” Smith said. “And you notice there are some uneven pavements around here.”

Avoiding medical pitfalls is important, too. Adequate hydration is a must.

“When you’re traveling, … you become dehydrated,” Smith said. “Medical issues … go along with that. So there are a lot of little layers of different things. Safety, safety, safety.”

But due to bladder control problems, some don’t want to drink too much or they need to regularly run to the restroom.

Weather, of course, is another issue. (Current forecast is a high of 68, partly cloudy.)

“So that’s a big deal when you’re bringing veterans of this age group to an area [when] they’re used to this balmy weather we have in San Diego,” Smith said.

To make it a healthy experience, tours are booked within a window of opportunity when temps start to warm up and before there’s ice on the sidewalks. They schedule trips in April and then again in September.

Of course, care is not just skin-deep.

Lisa Gary, who along with her husband lead one of four color-coded groups of about 20 veterans, said: “You just have to be aware of everything that’s going on around you at all times with the veterans, whether it be, you know, emotional, if they seem sad or the physical part of it, are they not able to move well enough?”

Guardians and other are always on alert to “try to make sure that everything’s OK with them.”

And then there’s the “mail call” on their flight to the nation’s capital.

Honor Flight San Diego has collected about 4,000 letters of support from church groups, Scout troops and community members. This is in addition to correspondence from family and friends.

Veterans get emotional over such notes, Gary said, “because they have family members that have never said the things that they’re writing down for them.”

Enlisting veterans for the flights is one of the most time-consuming logistics of the journey, Gary said.

Honor Flight has databases of veterans’ names and reaches out to assisted living places, the VA hospital — any place where they might find veterans, she said.

“I would venture to say that a good half of the people that we talked to say: ‘I don’t deserve to go’ … because either they didn’t see combat, … they weren’t wounded, or they never left the States,” said Gary, who visits applicants and assesses their mobility.

She reassures them about the importance of their military service.

Some say they’ve already been to Washington and seen the memorials.

“But have you seen it with 79 or 80 other veterans at the same time? That you can share your story with? That you can talk about things that maybe you haven’t talked about with anybody else?” she asks them.

It’s different when you’re with comrades, rather than family members or others who might not understand war experiences, Gary said.

What happens at the stops create memories and milestones.

On a previous trip, a veteran told Gary that for 70 years he never talked to anyone about his service in World War II.

“Wow, that’s a long time to go to keeping all of that inside,” said the Honor Flight San Diego team leader. “And I think what’s wonderful … That almost felt like it gave him permission. Because now … he’s done this trip. And it’s OK to talk about it.”

She added: “I think that’s what is important about our job is to make them feel like they’re special and that they can talk about it.”

The trips, costing $250,000 per journey, are funded completely by donations. To donate, click here.

Times of San Diego is accompanying Honor Flight this weekend. Second in a series.