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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

One group halts Honor Flights for Kansas WWII veterans for now

By RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

Gerald Teague, an 87-year-old World War II veteran, would like to see the war’s memorial in Washington, D.C.

But like most WWII veterans, he has trouble getting around. Going alone to see the memorial is out of the question.

“I’ve kind of given up on traveling,” said Teague, a retired pastor who resides at an assisted-living facility in Wichita.

Unless he could go on an Honor Flight, a grassroots organization based in Springfield, Ohio, which has sent more than 81,000 WWII vets to D.C. to see the memorial since 2005. Not only are veterans’ travel expenses paid by the organization, “guardians” go with vets to help them get around.

But Honor Flights in Kansas are in a state of flux right now with one organization that conducted flights on the verge of disappearing, another scrambling to replace it and some supporters not sure what to do.

At least several hundred Kansas WWII veterans have indicated through applications to the organization they want to go on a flight.

“It’s a major tragedy if infighting in the organization screws it up,” said Phil Blake, a WWII vet who went on an Honor Flight in 2009. “These guys are dying off very quickly.”

Efforts to send Kansas’ aging veterans stalled this year because Great Bend-based Central Prairie Honor Flights, the national network’s largest hub in the state, was booted out of the organization in late April for a variety of reasons.

According to national and local Honor Flight officials, those issues included:

•  A veteran breaking a rib after falling out of a top bunk bed in April 2011.

•  A multitude of operation breakdowns, including late filing of annual business reports to the state and allowing checks to go uncashed for as long as nine months.

•  Failure to get “memory” books delivered in a timely fashion to veterans. That has resulted in complaints to the national office by veterans anxiously awaiting their books but also from businesses that bought ads to help finance the books.

After raising nearly $1.2 million and conducting 17 Honor Flights that took more than 1,100 WWII veterans to Washington over the last 2 ½ years, Central Prairie hasn’t had any flights in 2012 and canceled two June flights.

Meanwhile, two former Central Prairie volunteers – whose complaints to the national office resulted in the Great Bend’s group affiliation being dropped – are ramping up a new organization: Hutchinson-based Kansas Honor Flight. The group has been certified by the national office and it hopes to have a flight later this summer.

Town hall meeting

Central Prairie isn’t going away quietly.

Herb Duncan, a Wichita fundraiser for the Great Bend hub, has set up a town hall meeting for 6 p.m. Tuesday at American Legion Post No. 4, 816 N. Water in Wichita, in hopes of clearing up what’s happening.

He originally asked LaVeta Miller, who has been Central Prairie Honor Flights’ program manager for the past 15 months, to take questions at the meeting.

But the executive board for Central Prairie Resource Conservation and Development district, a nonprofit that has had the Honor Flights as one of its projects, met Thursday and voted not to allow Miller to attend the meeting, board president Richard Foster said.

The board’s vice president, treasurer and one of its directors will attend, Foster said. Duncan said he will still have the meeting.

“I want the truth on the table,” he said. “The focus of all this should be getting the veterans back to Washington. That’s my mission.”

Central Prairie has served as keeper of the database for applications from veterans. It has turned the 350 applications over to the national office, which will redistribute them to the five certified flight hubs in Kansas, said Jim McLaughlin, board chairman for Honor Flight Network.

Some of those applications will go to the state’s four student-editions hubs. Those are run by school districts, which generally do one or two flights per year, taking 20 to 30 veterans on a flight at a time.

About 100 vets would go on a charter flight conducted by Central Prairie.

One of the student-edition hubs is in Lyndon, where Superintendent Brian Spencer oversees it. He brought Honor Flights to Kansas in 2007 and is on the national board. He joined the rest of the board in unanimously voting to drop Central Prairie’s certification.

“There are a myriad of reasons,” he said.

Spencer noted that most of the 117 hubs across the country operate in a more local fashion, serving a smaller geographic area.

“Central Prairie has moved a lot of veterans and done a great job,” he said, “but they’re big and cumbersome. It’s difficult for one person to do it all and not have issues.”

Loss of federal funding

Significant changes began for Central Prairie Honor Flights in mid-April 2011 when the federal government stopped funding Resource Conservation and Development districts across the country.

Those districts do a variety of community projects. After losing its funding, the eight RCD districts in Kansas became stand-alone nonprofits.

The Central Prairie RCD, which covers an eight-county area and is funded largely by grants, conducts farm safety classes and has done such projects as helping build a park and fire station. Its biggest project by far has been the Honor Flights.

But when Central Prairie RCD lost federal funding, it lost its only federal employee, Dan Curtis, who served as the Honor Flights’ coordinator. He continued to help out as a volunteer through much of 2011 but is now a soil conservationist in Utah and managing programs for veterans.

Miller was promoted from program assistant to its manager.

“I didn’t ask for this,” she said. “I never said I haven’t made mistakes. I just want to do what’s best for the veterans.”

One of her mistakes was not getting some checks cashed for up to nine months because they were misplaced during a move made necessary by the loss of the group’s federally funded office space, Foster said.

“That’s egg on our face,” said Foster, president of the Central Prairie RCD board. “No doubt about it.”

Miller blamed glitches with new computers for filing late business reports with the Secretary of State’s Office. Both the 2010 and 2011 reports were filed in March of this year, although the 2011 report wasn’t due until June 15, according to the state’s website.

The bunk-bed incident happened during back-to-back Central Prairie flights – one out of Wichita, one out of Garden City – April 18-21, 2011. Usually the veterans stay at high-quality hotels, but Curtis said he became aware of good rates offered at the 4-H’s national headquarters and told Miller she should book the accommodations.

But 4-H quarters also included some bunk beds that were glued together and couldn’t be separated. The veterans were told not to climb up in the bunks, Miller said.

“They leave here 85,” Miller said, “but they think they’re 23 when they get out there.”

At least one veteran did climb into a bunk. Around 2 a.m. he fell out and cracked a rib. It was also was determined at the hospital that the man needed a pacemaker for his heart, Curtis said.

Otherwise, the trip went smoothly, said Jim Malone, a WWII veteran whose wife, Betty, served as his guardian.

“I thought it was a wonderful thing,” said Malone, 86. “They fed us a breakfast at the 4-H that was out of this world.”

Only weeks after Malone returned from the trip, he learned that the prostate cancer he thought he had whipped 16 years ago had come back. He’s now undergoing treatment and won’t be able to travel.

“Good thing I got to go when I did,” he said. “Sure hope they can keep this going for the others.”

Memory books

Spencer, the national board member from Lyndon, said one of the biggest issues in reviewing Central Prairie’s status was that about 700 memory books weren’t delivered in a timely manner – even though Central Prairie is the only hub in the national network that offers the books.

Books from 2010 flights hadn’t been delivered, and Central Prairie hasn’t had a flight since last fall.

The books include a picture of the veteran when he was in the service, on the trip and with family. The vet also writes memories of WWII that are put in the spiral-bound book, Foster said.

They also contained ads from businesses. So when those books never appeared that became a “bone of contention,” Spencer said.

Miller said the books weren’t finalized because “we didn’t have the money.” She said the Central Prairie RCD had to contribute $40,000 in 2010 to help keep Honor Flights going.

“Funding has always been a concern,” Miller said.

She also said she was delayed on the books because she was shopping around for a lower-cost printer. The printing shop at Hutchinson’s state prison was selected and recently finished printing the books.

Foster said picked up the books last week and is in the process of getting them mailed or having them distributed through local VFW and American Legion posts.

Miller said she canceled the June flights in March because “we didn’t have funding. When we get 90 days out and don’t have money for a plane, then I get worried.”

Spencer said the national board was willing to follow up and help Central Prairie resolve some of its problems, but then the board learned the flights had been canceled. It was then that the board decided to drop Central Prairie’s certification, Spencer said.

The national office has also objected to Central Prairie continuing to refer to “honor flight” on its website and has requested it stop doing so. Duncan is the designer and webmaster of the site. He said he can’t drop the reference because “honor flight” is part of its registered name with the secretary of state.

Complaints about Central Prairie’s operation were sent to the Honor Flight Network by Mike VanCampen and Mark Collins. VanCampen, who lives in Turon, near Hutchinson, is the president of Kansas Honor Flight; Collins, of Topeka, is the secretary. They formed the nonprofit organization in May after serving as longtime volunteers for Central Prairie Honor Flights.

Between four of the Kansas Honor Flight board members and two of their spouses, they have gone on 29 Honor Flights as leaders or guardians, VanCampen said.

“Our concern is to safely transfer veterans to Washington with a committee of people who are experienced to do this and have the fiduciary responsibility to do it,” said VanCampen, who has been on nine flights. “We’re absolutely committed to the same mission as we were before.”

He said his organization won’t be doing the larger charter flights but will fly commercial, taking about 30 veterans on each flight.

“It’s much safer and more comfortable for the veterans (to travel in smaller groups),” VanCampen said.

The cost per veteran is about $650, or about $20,000 for a flight of 30 veterans.

Guardians who accompany the veterans must pay their own way. The veterans’ costs are covered by donations.

Fundraising is a backbone of keeping the flights going.

Money collected as an Honor Flight hub by Central Prairie must be returned to the national office so it can be redistributed to hubs in Kansas, said McLaughlin, the national officer. As of last week, that money had not been returned.

Foster said he checked Thursday and found Central Prairie had $90,000 in the bank, although about $15,000 of that will be needed to pay off expenses.

Miller disputed that amount, saying not all of it was for the Honor Flight program.

Fundraising impact

Duncan is an eager fundraiser and said he had 35 fundraising events for Central Prairie set when it lost its certification.

“What I’d like to do is just take over Central Prairie the way it is now and continue on,” he said. “That would make it smooth sailing. We wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

But Foster said that’s not possible because Central Prairie’s flights had its liability insurance through the national network.

“We are not doing any more flights,” Foster said.

Duncan is also considering the possibility connecting with another program in the country that takes WWII vets to Washington. There are a number of them not affiliated with the Honor Flight Network, McLaughlin said.

Much of Central Prairie’s donations came from the Wichita area, Foster said, and Duncan was a key part of that.

VanCampen and Collins have asked Duncan to join them, but he has declined so far.

All of the uncertainty has left some of the backers of the flights wondering where to place their loyalty.

“Right now, going out in the business community trying to raise funds, I’m getting doors shut in my face,” Duncan said. “They want to know who’s in charge.”

Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper had joined with KFDI to raise more than $20,000 in separate fundraisers in 2010 and in 2011, but it has canceled a scheduled event for July because of the “disarray,” said J.W. Johnson, who owns Prairie Rose along with her husband, Greg.

“We’re stepping back for now,” J.W. Johnson said. “We love the veterans and want to help them.”

That includes Teague, the Navy veteran who served in the Pacific as a radioman during WWII.

“The flights seem important to those who go,” he said. “It’s important to continue it for whoever backs these things. It must be very gratifying and patriotic.”

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

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