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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Students to join vets' D.C. visit

BY RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

Jim Monroe, a World War II veteran, is always looking for a chance to teach others — particularly young people — about the history of this country. This week, he'll have an ideal opportunity to do that when he will be joined by 13 current and former Pleasant Valley Middle School students on a trip to Washington, D.C., to see the national World War II Memorial.

"I'll be looking to visit with them," the 84-year-old Monroe said.

He can share how he managed to join the Marines at age 16 on July 3, 1942. He can tell them about the ferocious battles he experienced on the Pacific islands of Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Saipan.

But mostly Monroe just wants to

remind the students about the sacrifices others have made to keep this country free.

"It almost brings tears to my eyes to see us deteriorate (as a nation)," he said. "The kids aren't taught any history. They don't seem to know what the country represents, the efforts of our forefathers."

Monroe will find that the students who are joining him and about 155 other WWII veterans from Wichita have been well schooled in some of that history.

In preparation for the trip, other WWII veterans have visited Pleasant Valley in recent months to talk about those sacrifices, said Andy Trager, a leadership instructor for the school's Junior ROTC program.

The students also have a significant investment in this trip. Since last summer, they have raised $12,000 through a variety of projects — car washes to bake sales — to pay not only for their trip but also for two WW II veterans traveling to Washington.

"The kids are really excited about this," said Trager, who helped organize the Pleasant Valley effort along with teacher Meg Plotner. Four adults paid their own way to travel with the students.

Tuesday night, Pleasant Valley will hold a send-off banquet in its school gym for the veterans on the trip. Early Wednesday morning, the group will take a chartered flight out of Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport to begin a two-day tour of the WWII memorial and other sites before returning Thursday night.

The flights are part of the Central Prairie Honor Flights — a Kansas chapter of a national grassroots movement to provide an opportunity for aging WWII veterans to see the Washington memorial that honors them.

"Everyone involved knows there's an hourglass on this," said Dan Curtis, who heads the Central Prairie organization, based in Great Bend. "Time is running out on these veterans."

Nationally, WWII veterans are dying at a rate of about 1,000 a day, according to the Honor Flight website. Curtis estimated Kansas loses 17 to 20 WWII vets each day.

Less than 10 percent of Kansas' 8,500 WWII vets have gone on an honor flight since Central Prairie started doing the flights about three years ago, Curtis said.

The cost of sending each veteran is $650. However, there is no charge to the veteran. Donations sponsor their trips.

"If every Kansan donated 50 cents, we'd have enough to fly every WWII veteran (from Kansas)," Curtis said. "That's not a lot to ask for the freedom we've had for 65 years."

Although there are about 1,200 on the waiting list for an honor flight, Curtis said many vets still don't know about the opportunity.

"We keep trying to get the word out," he said.

Wednesday's flight will be the 14th conducted by Central Prairie. No. 13 left this morning from Garden City, carrying about 115 vets from western Kansas.

Plans call for Central Prairie to have an honor flight in June, another in September and two in October.

Because of the deteriorating health of many of the veterans, who range in age from mid-80s to upper 90s, each trip also includes "guardians," who pay their own way. Usually there is one guardian for every two veterans — looking after their health needs, making sure they drink enough water and assisting them in getting around.

For some, the guardian is the veteran's spouse. That's the case for Monroe, whose wife, Betty, will join him. He is a cancer survivor and sometimes needs a wheelchair.

"I get around pretty good," Monroe said.

He was really getting around in 1942, when he hitchhiked about 170 miles from his hometown of Brownwood, Texas, to Dallas to join the Marines.

"I told the recruiter I was 16," Monroe said. "He told me I couldn't join at 16 and to take a form back to my parents to sign, saying I was 17."

He hitchhiked back to Brownwood and gave the papers to his parents. His dad, a Marine who fought in France in World War I, and his mother talked about it and then signed the papers. One more hitchhiking trip and he was all signed up.

At 16, Monroe saw combat at Guadalcanal.

He finished high school after the war and went to work as a railway mail clerk. He moved to Newton in 1951 and then to Wichita in 1967 before retiring from the U.S. Postal Service in 1986.

Monroe also got his correct birth date straight with the Marines. He'll be 85 on June 14 — Flag Day.

Although his travels over the years have taken Monroe to Washington, he said this trip will be different.

"It's an opportunity to mix with a bunch of great guys," he said.

And to pass on some history lessons to those much younger.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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