One man was a survivor of D-Day.
Another, a survivor of Iwo Jima.
There were 14 veterans in total from the Central Coast — their valor still radiating through their 90-year-old wrinkles — gathered around the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 27.
“These heroes have lived down to the last chapter or paragraph in their life, and seeing this has given them the opportunity to give them a dot at the end of the sentence,” said Jay Conner, a board member of a newly-formed Honor Flight Central Coast Hub.
Conner is a veteran himself and served as a guardian (a person who takes care of a veteran on their visit) to Vern Black on their trip to visit the WWII Memorial. Black is an Air Force veteran who served as a pilot in two theaters in World War II and was on active duty for 12 years.
“Most of my missions were secret, and I usually didn’t know where I was being sent to until I was already there,” Black said. “I served in countries where I wouldn’t want to live and wouldn’t want to go back.”
By the time the WWII Memorial was completed in 2004, Black was 83 and living off of a monthly retirement check of $1,345. With the costs of the flights, hotels and medical assistance many need, seeing the memorial built to honor him was a far-fetched dream.
His dream, however, came true this past October. He was among the 14 veterans who were honored and saluted by every active military member in D.C., and who were able to do so with the help of Honor Flight — a non-profit organization which provides the financial support and arrangements to assist veterans nearing the end of their life to visit their memorial.
“It really touched me standing in front of the memorial and seeing the eyes and faces of the other veterans looking at the names of the 400,000 veterans who died in service, searching for the names they knew,” Black said.
Honor Flight’s top priority is to serve the oldest survivors, WWII veterans or any veteran with a terminal illness. Over time, the goal is to transition to assist Korean War, Vietnam War and other veterans who served on a chronological basis.
The veterans from the Central Coast have to go through the Honor Flight Kern County Regional Hub located in Bakersfield, Calif. because there is not an active hub for the Central Coast.
To help serve veterans from the Central Coast better, Greg McGill, who is a part of the Kern County hub, is creating a regional hub in the Central Coast. They hope to be fully running by next spring, he said.
There are 20 veterans on the waiting list for flights, and the wait time depends on the amount of funding the organization receives, McGill said. The organization is entirely volunteer-based, and every penny goes towards the trips. In this past year, McGill received enough funding to help 42 WWII veterans from the Central Coast visit the memorial.
“It’s really moving,” McGill said. “Seeing 90-year-old men crying with tears of joy from something that happened 70 years ago will change your life.”
Conner said his experience as Black’s guardian, and working with the other veterans, was one of his favorite memories.
“You read about history, you hear about history, you talk about it and these people were actually there, so that’s phenomenal,” Conner said.
Conner met Black more than 25 years ago while putting on Pismo Beach’s First Western Day and searching for country western dancers. Black and his wife are in the Country Western Dancing Hall of Fame and have given dance lessons to Conner and his wife over the years. Through dance lessons, First Western Day and laughter, the four became close friends. When Conner saw Black’s name on the wait-list for Honor Flight, he immediately signed up to be his guardian.
A guardian can be anyone older than 18 who is willing to pay for their trip, tend to their veteran’s needs and stay with them during the trip. Every veteran is appointed a guardian, and they may not always know the person.
When Black discovered his guardian was his close friend, he was thrilled.
“I didn’t learn as much about him in the 25 years we were friends as I did the three days we were together,” Conner said.
Black said Conner was constantly helping other veterans who needed it more than him and Black “tried to be no problem for him,” he said.
Black was able to walk during their visit, but most of the veterans needed their guardians to push them in a wheelchair. To attend to medical needs, most flights have at least one firefighter, paramedic, EMT and medical staff member.
The veterans rarely let their fragility stop them from getting on a plane and going on an exhausting trip, McGill said.
“It’s not as bad as you’d think,” McGill said. “The veterans know what they are up to. They know it’s going to be a quick three-day trip. They aren’t afraid of dying, and they understand they’ve had a long, good life. Getting to see the memorial is life-changing.”