Peninsula works with Honor Flight to honor World War II Veterans


Rachel Smith, A&E/Opinion Editor

The Honor Flight Network is a non-profit committed to sending World War II veterans to the memorial in Washington D.C so that they can reflect on the time that they have served and be honored for their service to the country. Since starting in 2005, Honor Flight has provided the opportunity for thousands of World War II veterans to attend the trip.

“It’s all expenses paid for the veteran, and a chaperone goes with them. It’s just a weekend trip, but they get to visit all the big sights, and it’s a time for them to kind of just reflect and get some closure with the service and what they did for our country. It’s time-limited in the sense that most of these people are in their late 80’s or early 90’s. The time to send them is now,” said leadership teacher, Danielle O’Leary.

However, the annual trip cannot take place without funding. This year, Peninsula made the decision to perform a community-wide service project for Veterans Day, and it has continued throughout the school year, providing a lasting impact for three veterans in the community.

“We’d never really done a Veterans Day project before, so my goal in leadership is to act as a service element and to encourage students to move away from themselves and the school to what else they can do for the community,” said O’Leary, who presented  the idea to marketing teacher John Selfors.

The project was organized by juniors and fellow marketing students, Talia Bickert, Caroline Mitchell, and Mackenzie Walch after Selfors asked them to take part.

“I was approached by Mr. Selfors and Mrs. O’Leary with the project, and I was really excited about it because I was trying to figure out what to do for my community service project, and I thought it was perfect,” said Bickert.

What started out as an idea soon became reality. Over the course of months, numerous steps were taken to reach the group’s joint goal of reaching out to the community and simultaneously making the school a part of the process.

“I first started the project in late September or early October, and then we decided to make it a coin drive and a class competition to get people involved,” said Bickert.

The student body quickly became involved after Bickert, Mitchell, Walch, and senior Morgan Blalock organized a Veterans Day assembly. At the assembly, they introduced the project, striking a sentimental chord in the student and staffs hearts. After introducing the idea, students were asked to donate money through a miracle minute, which resulted in the collection of over half of the donations that went into the project. In addition, students were given time to write cards for the veterans in their classes. The cards were given to all of the veterans attending the trip and made the veterans’ experience even more positive.

“They did mail call at the end of the trip, and we gave over 1000 letters written by students,” said O’Leary.

Due to the students’ willingness to help and the hard work of marketing and leadership students, PHS raised $2700 for the cause. As a result, John Yacko, Melvin Franz and Ailene Tronca, three veterans at a Gig Harbor retirement home, were able to go.

Prior to their flight to the nation’s capital, the three veterans enjoyed the opportunity to interact with students when they came to the school for a presentation put on by marketing and leadership. This experience proved very emotional and valuable to the veterans, who tearfully expressed their gratitude as they recalled how much it meant to them to see the memorial.

At the same time, students were deeply impacted  as they listened to Yacko, Franz, and Tronca share their stories of their years of service. While the three veterans served in World War II they were a part of very separate programs.

“So then we meet with them and they told us about their experience in the wars and it was pretty wonderful to hear about. It put a lot of different perspective on the types of jobs they had during the war,” said Bickert. “Like Melvin sailed across three different oceans and they all served for about three years or so, and it was just pretty impactful to hear about all that they went through and everything. Melvin and John served in the Vietnam war too, and then Aileen worked at the ports in Washington, D.C.”

A number of staff members, upon meeting the veterans, became a part of the program, serving as designated drivers for the students who attended both the departure and arrival of the three veterans’ flight at Sea-Tac.

“I really wanted to do it because when we had the reception with the three honorees, it reminded me of my dad, a Korean war veteran. After hearing about the program, I felt privileged to do it,” said Kathy Crowley.

On Friday, April 22, the three veterans, along with fifty others from around the Puget Sound area, were sent off with the help of Bickert and a few other students.

“I took a couple of friends and we went and said good-bye to them and we got to talk to them a lot more so it was a lot of spending time with them and talking with them about the war and making sure they had fun. So we took them through security and we were with them the entire time. Once they boarded their flight we got out on the runway with signs and we watched them take off. From the high school I took 3 other people with us but there were a lot of different volunteers and people saying goodbye to their family and there were a lot of military people there as well,” said Bickert.

Three days later, on April 25, the veterans were welcomed back, but with a very different experience. To their shock, and to the students and staff that came to welcome them back, as well, a large crowd, full of family and friends as well as those currently serving in the military were waiting for the fifty or so veterans aboard the plane.

“On Monday night when we welcomed them home, I was not expecting it to be the way that it was; it was amazing. So many people were there and they had a big formation outside of the gate, so when the veterans came out there was a bunch of military people there, and then each one of them escorted them in a wheelchair or held their hand and we took them,” said Crowley.

Not only were the veterans honored by the military, but by those attending the event. As the veterans were either wheeled or walked throughout the airport, an endless sea of faces could be seen, each showing their gratitude and appreciation.

“A couple of us high school students had signs in front of us, and we escorted them through the airport and through all the gates that we walked through. We took them through the airport, and every single person that we walked by started standing up and clapping as we took them through the airport,” said Bickert.

Around ten students and a few staff members were able to attend the welcoming back of the veterans, and they were just as shocked that every branch of the military was there to honor and welcome the veterans back home.

“As they came off the plane ramp, they would yell out the navy and a navy officer in full dress would come out, salute them, shake their hand and take over their duties. People asked to delay their flights so they could watch the veterans walk by. Everybody should try and go to it. It is an experience that will go beyond anything that you will experience,” said Crowley.

The air force sang the national anthem and each branch of the military’s song. Bagpipes played, and at the end, each veteran received a gift.

“At the end we took them to a ceremony with a bunch of bands, bagpipe bands, and they got quilts stitched with their name in them. It was amazing,” said Bickert.

The trip not only impacted the veterans, but also the students. Both Mitchell and Bickert will be continuing the project next year with the goal of sending at least four or five veterans.

“It was a super great experience for us and them. It turns out that Aileen and John were dating and met in the retirement home, which is super adorable and Melvin had this book that he would carry around everywhere with him, and it had pictures of his time in the war,” said Mitchell. “They were just such sweet people and I can’t imagine doing a different project or not being a part of it. They were so sweet and thankful to have been able to go, so I want more vets to be able to experience that.”