by: Deeana Wilkerson
When Lee Sell landed at an Air Force base in California after serving during the Vietnam War, he remembers being urged not to wear his uniform while off the base for fear of how the public would treat him.
“During Vietnam, we were not treated very well,” Sell said.
The Sun City resident, who will be 80 in September, is a Korean War era veteran who served as a cryptographer in the Air Force in Hawaii.
Like many other veterans of that era, Sell doesn’t remember getting much recognition for his service during those years. But since he discovered the nonprofit organization Honor Flight Savannah, he feels he has finally received the appreciation all veterans deserve.
The mission of the Honor Flight Network is to provide trips for American veterans to visit Washington, D.C., so they may see the memorials that were built and dedicated to honor their sacrifices in past wars.
Sell learned about the program after meeting Suzi Oliver, veterans liaison for Hospice Care of the Lowcountry and a volunteer for Honor Flight Savannah.
“She told me about the program and I said, ‘Oh, but I wasn’t in combat,’ and she told me it didn’t matter, that I was still a veteran,” Sell said.
So he applied and was invited to join the trip to Washington in October. Leaving from Hunter Army Airfield, he rode by bus on a trip to the Capitol, where he was able to tour the monuments with other veterans.
Upon arrival in Washington, the veterans were greeted by several active duty and fellow veterans thanking them personally for their service.
Seeing the monuments is an emotional experience for the veterans.
“Probably the Korean monument was the best. They are all very moving, but the Korea one was so realistic,” Sell said.
‘A marvelous program’
Being able to experience the program made Sell want to help any way he could.
“It’s a marvelous program,” Sell said. “I was so impressed with what they do for veterans that I decided I wanted to be available to help other veterans.”
In May, Sell took the tour again as a guardian for fellow Sun City resident and World War II veteran “Lucky” Frank Grady.
Guardians pay their own travel expenses and are given the privilege to escort a veteran on the trip to Washington. Showing Grady around and watching him experience the monuments was one of the most rewarding aspects of being a guardian for Sell.
“It’s wonderful to see them start to open up and talk to each other about their experiences,” Sell said.
The best part is, every aspect of the trip is free for each veteran.
“If we go into a gas station and he wants a candy bar, his guardian will buy the candy bar. He doesn’t pay anything,” Sell said.
Oliver said all it takes to become a guardian is the desire to help and to be physically and emotionally supportive of the veterans they are escorting. Most veterans are paired with their own guardians in a one-to-one ratio on each trip.
Frank Grady, a Korean War veteran who took the trip in May, plans to return as a guardian in October.
“It was fabulous, unbelievable. They treated me and all the other veterans so great and it was the most wonderful experience,” Grady said.
For him, the camaraderie was the best part of the trip. He now regularly gets together with Sell and other veterans for lunch and to chat.
“Everything about the trip was first class and top notch. They really know how to make you feel as special as you can ever imagine,” he said.
Sense of community
Oliver said when she thinks of the organization, a specific word comes to mind: Community.
“The community comes together to make this event happen,” she said. “Honor Flight Savannah is a nonprofit run by volunteers who fundraise and rely on donations to ensure that veterans make it to D.C. at no cost to them. Through speaking at clubs, word of mouth and publicity, the job gets done.”
Simply bringing it up in everyday conversations helps promote the organization. When Oliver spoke with Kathy Corley, principal of Red Cedar Elementary School, earlier this year about the program, she immediately offered to support the mission.
Prior to a fifth-grade trip to Washington in April, the students wrote thank you cards to veterans.
“The students made many wonderful cards, which brought tears to the veterans’ eyes,” Oliver said.
Several other local groups support the organization financially. Kevin Sevier of State Farm Insurance and John Rush from Ameriprise Financial Services recently funded veterans’ trips.
“A Sun City resident saw a thank you letter I had submitted to the newspaper thanking Kevin Sevier, and his response to that thank you letter was to send HFS a very generous donation. The people in this community are great,” Oliver said.
Priority is given to older veterans, specifically those who served in World War II, Vietnam or Korea.
“Approximately 492 World War II veterans die each day, so HFS is trying our best to get the world out to the remaining World War II veterans so that they can get up to D.C. while they are still physically able,” Oliver said.
As a member of the Sun City Veterans Association, Sell said he is available to other Sun City veterans who need assistance with filling out an application to join the next Honor Flight Savannah trip.
For more information about Honor Flight Savannah call 912-367-9020 or go to www.honorflightsavannah.org.