July 17, 2012

New group launches Honor Flights in Kansas

Don Revert is finally headed to see the national World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.

Don Revert is finally headed to see the national World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.

“If I was younger,” the WWII veteran said, “I’d enjoy it a lot more.”

Revert is 99.

He’ll turn 100 on Aug. 26, about three weeks after he returns from seeing the memorial as part of an Honor Flight, a national grassroots effort that began sending WWII vets to Washington in 2005.

When Revert boards his flight out Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport on July 31 for the three-day trip, it’s believed he will become the oldest veteran to fly out of Kansas as part of Honor Flight, according to organizers. The previous oldest is thought to have been 96.

He’ll be part of the first flight operated by the state’s newest hub, Kansas Honor Flight, a Hutchinson-based organization that began operation in May.

“It’s good to get the flights going again,” said Mike VanCampen, president of Kansas Honor Flight.

They never totally stopped. Four student-edition hubs – operated by school districts in Lyndon, Concordia, Holton and Leroy – have continued.

But the main hub, Central Prairie Honor Flights in Great Bend, was booted out of the national organization in late April for a variety of management issues, including a veteran falling out of a top bunk during an Honor Flight last year and breaking a rib. After conducting 17 Honor Flights that took more than 1,100 WWI veterans to Washington over a 2 1/2-year period, that hub had to cancel all of its flights in 2012 because of a shortage of money.

Revert was set to go on two of the canceled flights.

“Disappointed? Sure,” he said. “I’m not getting any younger.”

Mary Lou Early was concerned her father would never be on one of the flights.

But about two weeks ago, she received a call from VanCampen saying there was a spot on the July 31st flight if her father was able to go.

Not only will Revert be going but so will Early as his “guardian.” Veterans travel with a companion to help them get around. Early, who lives in Mount Vernon, Mo., is well-suited because she’s a retired Army nurse.

“I think I can handle him,” she said with a laugh.

Cost for trip

The cost of sending a veteran is $650; guardians must pay for their trip.

Twenty-eight Kansas veterans will go on the flight. Revert and two others will fly out of Wichita, and the other 25 will fly out of Kansas City. That’s because Southwest Airlines provided free tickets for 25 veterans, but Southwest won’t have flights out of Wichita until next year.

“That’s about a $10,000 contribution,” VanCampen. “That’s significant.”

It’s probably a one-time-only deal. Southwest often provides free flights for new hubs, VanCampen said.

Getting Kansas Honor Flight off the ground has been a chore because fundraising hit a lull with the problems surrounding Central Prairie.

For a couple of months after it was cut off by the national headquarters, Central Prairie’s website said it still planned to do Honor Flights, even though the president of Central Prairie’s board said that wasn’t the case. The website now directs visitors to Kansas Honor Flight.

It costs about $20,000 to take 30 veterans on a flight, VanCampen said. Much of the $1.2 million raised for Central Prairie over the years came from the Wichita area.

“We have to start from ground zero,” said Herb Duncan, who led volunteer efforts in Wichita to raise funds for Honor Flight. “The money bucket is gone, and we’re trying to refill it.”

Kansas Honor Flight’s recent announcement that it will have its first flight this month has jump-started that effort, Duncan said.

He met with American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars groups last weekend to rally support for the effort.

“They’re ready to help,” Duncan said.

‘Back on track’

At first, Duncan balked at jumping on board with the Kansas Honor Flight because his allegiance was to Central Prairie. VanCampen and others in his organization also were active with Central Prairie as volunteers.

“Herb and I sat down and talked,” VanCampen said. “We both want the same thing for the veterans.”

Duncan said, “We’re back on track.”

He would like to see the continuation of taking flights of 100 vets at a time, as Central Prairie sometimes did. “Doing one big flight would be a catalyst to re-energize Wichita for a solid stream of money,” he said, adding that funds could also be used to take Korean and Vietnam vets to see their memorials.

But he said, “Mike is driving the bus. We’re behind him 100 percent.”

VanCampen will keep the number of vets going on each flight in the 28-30 range. The smaller number is less stressful on the aging vets, he said, noting that 21 of the 28 vets going on the July flight will require wheelchairs at least some of the time.

“Plus, we have to wait around to get more money if we’re taking 100,” VanCampen said. “These veterans can’t wait.”

In going through the applications turned over from Central Prairie, he said his group had to contact 50 veterans or their families before coming up with the 28.

Some had already flown with a student-edition hub, four or five had died and about 10 couldn’t go because of health reasons, VanCampen said.

He estimated there are about 300 WWII vets who filed an application for a flight, but he said there’s a possibility some of the applications sent to Central Prairie may have been lost or misplaced.

Any vet or family member who has filled out an application in the last two or three years should contact Kansas Honor Flight (620-546-2400) to confirm that paperwork is on file, VanCampen said.

Plans call for the organization to conduct another flight in September, although fundraising for that trip isn’t complete, VanCampen said.

Ready for D.C.

As for Revert, who is also one of the oldest living WWII vets, he is excited to see the nation’s capital for the first time. Not to mention a break in the daily routine of staying in an assisted-living facility in Mulvane.

A widower for about 10 years, Revert lived in his home and still drove until falling three years ago and breaking his leg in three places, Early, his daughter, said.

His hearing isn’t good, but his mind is sharp.

He talked about leaving the farm and the oil fields in early 1941 to join a brother in working at Wichita’s Beech Aircraft. He was drafted at the age of 31 a couple of years later.

“I got three draft deferments because I was at Beech,” Revert said, “but the fourth time the Barber County draft board said, no, I have to go. I didn’t know if I’d come back alive or not.”

He served in Army as a vehicle mechanic and with an engineering group building bridges.

“We’d build a bridge (for U.S. troops), then blow it up so the Germans couldn’t use it,” Revert said. “Bullets were flying all around us.”

When the war ended in Europe, he was sent to the Philippines to help prepare for the invasion of Japan.

“That never happened,” Revert said, “so, therefore, I’m still around, otherwise I might not be.”

He was handed divorce papers from his first wife when he returned after the war. But he soon found Emelyn Woodard, a girl he grew up with, teaching in Denver.

They were soon married in Wichita, started making monthly payments of $35 – with the help of the GI Bill – on their first house. He returned to working for Beech for a short time before opening a car-repair business across from East High School.

“It’s been a good life,” Revert said.

One that will include an early 100th birthday present.

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