Andrew Schiavello’s father, Dominic, served on the USS Missouri as a medic. He didn’t speak about those days, preferring to keep his relics in the basement. He died of lung disease before the World War II Memorial opened in 2004. His son never served. But he had six uncles through marriage who did—and, like his dad, they subtly conveyed the message: “Why join?”
“They just didn’t encourage it,” says Schiavello. “Though they’d always say, ‘When I was your age, I’d already fought a war.’”
Now 58 and living in West Chester, Schiavello saw his opportunity to do his part with the Honor Flight Network, the national nonprofit created in 2005 to take veterans to Washington, D.C., memorials that recognize their service. Based in Springfield, Ohio, Honor Flight has hosted 140,000 veterans—some 25,000 last year alone—from 134 hubs in 43 states. There have been 88 local bus trips—two to three a year—since 2012. The most recent trip departed from Flourtown Country Club on Sept. 24.
As the president of the Philadelphia chapter, Schiavello is one of eight local volunteers and at least 300 nationwide. He was initially inspired by an Honor Flight trip from San Diego, Calif., where he worked with a veteran once positioned behind enemy lines who helped initiate the European invasion on D-Day. Thought to be dead, he hid in a manure pile until it was safe to emerge, earning three purple hearts.
Top priority is given to World War II survivors, along with those who may be terminally ill. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 640 WWII veterans die each day. “Our time to express our thanks to these brave men and women is running out,” says Schiavello. “We can never repay them for what they did, but we can show them our appreciation.”
Pennsylvania ranks fifth among states with the most living veterans—some 71,000 of them. Finding and recruiting them for Honor Flight trips can be a challenge. Networking with nursing homes, senior centers and retirement communities helps get the word out. There are notices in church bulletins, posters—whatever it takes. “At the end, we get calls asking if we have any more space, and sometimes we have to add another bus,” says Schiavello.
The largest local response thus far was eight buses and 400 participants. And while facilities like the Coatesville Veteran Affairs Medical Center are obvious resources, there are liability issues. Some residents there and at other federally funded sites aren’t allowed to travel.
With the number of WWII veterans dwindling, the bulk of Honor Flight participants are Korean and Vietnam war heroes— though we’re losing more and more of the latter due to the effects of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. “They shortened their life to fight a war for us,” notes Schiavello.
Local Honor Flight trips are a day long, and each attendee has a guardian. The experience is free for veterans. The Philadelphia chapter always begins at Arlington National Cemetery, where Honor Flight is the only organization that can drive right up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The number of potential stops is extensive—the World War II Memorial, the National Museum of the United States Navy, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and so on. “We have a police escort from start to finish,” Schiavello says. “On the way back, we give the vets letters written by school kids.”
Highway overpasses are draped with American flags. There’s a welcome dinner, speeches and a group photo to bring home. All of it is funded through private donations—about $50,000-60,000 raised annually for the local chapter. And there’s a waiting list for Honor Flight trips. “A lot of them ask if they can go again,” Schiavello says. “The best I can do is invite them to the dinner. Many come, wearing the T-shirt and hat we gave them. They’re our alumni.”
For many deceased veterans, photos of their Honor Flight trips are among the images seen at funerals. “I’ll go and find those pictures,” says Schiavello. “I never expected that it would drive such memories.”