The North Country Honor Flight sponsors World War II and Korean veterans on flights to Washington DC three to five times a year. Since it was created in 2013, the group has made 22 flights and brought 328 veterans to the nation’s memorials. But organizers were concerned that some veterans were unable or unwilling to fly. On the last Honor Flight of the year, the group inaugurated a new virtual reality tour.
About a hundred people gathered at the early morning North Country Honor Flight sendoff for the veterans of WWII and the Korean War. Each veteran received travel orders in a traditional ceremony held before the flight.
90-year-old WWII Coast Guard Seaman Peter Jones was flying to Washington. “It’s just so great that people think and thank us for what we did and we were glad to do it and we’d do it again if we had to.”
92-year- old Army Vet Walt Rusca was a radar operator in Guam. “While I was there we actually lost two crews out of my Quonset hut. And of course that kind of puts a damper on things. And so you hope and pray that you're going to make it out and back.”
Most of the veterans would board a plane and spend the day in Washington visiting the nation’s war memorials. But eight cannot or will not fly and will instead take a virtual tour. And these older veterans are embracing the technology. WWII vet Ross Bouyea took the Honor Flight in 2013. He is enthusiastic that a virtual tour has been created for those who cannot physically travel to the capital. “I think it’s a great idea. See a lot of those pilots some of them got shot down and they'd never fly again. This is the only chance they got to be honored you know what I mean? Something like that I think it's a great thing.”
North Country Honor Flight Director Barrie Finnegan explained some of the reasons why the virtual reality tour was created. “Some people just are not going to get on a plane for various reasons. We've got one veteran is very worried what he went through during the war could come back and he's worried about the reaction once he sees that. Mr. Siskavic’s wife is not well. For that reason he's not going to take a whole day and go to Washington just in case.”
The Honor Flight bus headed to the airport terminal with a law enforcement and a motorcycle escort.
After dropping off the veterans flying to Washington, the bus continued to the Beekmantown Central School for the virtual tour.
Inside the veterans are met by school officials and the students who will help them with the VR headsets. Director of 21st Century Learning Gary Lambert first explained the technology. “You're going to be able to move and turn and look as if you were standing there. You are in a pivoting chair so that you can turn and look around. They kind of look like the old View-Master viewers. So you just have to hold it up and look around.”
From there the veterans began their tour. “So we're at the Lincoln Memorial. Now if you look over here you will see Abraham Lincoln’s statue. Would you like to go inside? So here we are. We’re inside the Lincoln Memorial folks looking out from where you were just looking in.”
Because virtual reality can be disorienting videos were played between memorial tours. At one point the veterans paused to comment. “My Name is Ken Lord and I went in the service in 1945. I was in Darmstadt (Germany). I seen a lot of places there were bombed out. You could look down a street and you could see the walls it looked as if the buildings were there but the insides and the roof was gone.”
Navy veteran Ed Degenhardt: “There are so many factors in today's world that are upside down or sideways. We seem to be doing so much of fracturing people's spirits and camaraderie by divisiveness. We all need to pull together like we did once during the World War.”
According to North Country Honor Flight, less than one million of the 16 million veterans of World War II are still alive.