When the latest round of men and women veterans step off their planes and back onto Kansas soil this week, it will mark a milestone with the Central Prairie Honor Flight program.
In the past three years, more than 2,000 elderly Kansas veterans have been treated to a trip of a lifetime as part of a grassroots movement to honor vets of World War II.
There is no rest — only urgency, says Col. Herb Duncan of the Commemorative Air Force Jayhawk Wing, because at least another 1,000 or more are on waiting lists to go, and time is running out.
"Because these veterans are dying," Duncan said. "They are 85 to 90 years of age, and we have this urgency to take them as fast as we can. The sickest ones go first. This is all about the patriotism that the Untied States needs back. Our mission is to send them all in time."
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On a national level, an estimated 1,500 World War II veterans are dying each day, 28 in Kansas.
The Kansas veterans are sponsored by Central Prairie Honor Flights, based in Great Bend. As part of a national Honor Flight movement, the group identifies World War II veterans and flies them to Washington at no cost to the veteran.
About 100 veterans and some family members and guardians were scheduled to leave this morning for a 50-hour whirlwind visit today and Wednesday of the nation's capital.
The veterans from Kansas will visit the World War II Memorial, Iwo Jima Memorial, Korean and Vietnam war memorials, and Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
They also will participate in a flag-raising at Fort McHenry, which nearly two centuries ago prompted Francis Scott Key to write the words for "The Star-Spangled Banner."
On Thursday, another 100 Kansas veterans and their guardians will be sent on the next round of the Honor Flight trips.
It is the largest group of veterans that have been sent so far from Kansas. said Dan Curtis, who has led the Great Bend Honor Flights program in the past.
"We won't do any more this fall," Curtis said, "unless we have a huge donor or donation. If we did, we could make a flight before Veterans Day. But we don't have the money to do that. By doing these charters back-to-back, we saved $35,000."
It is the economy of the program that has made the Kansas honor flight program so successful. The veterans fly for free — it costs $650 in donations to fly and entertain each veteran for two days.
It can take a year or more to be accepted from the waiting list once an application has been submitted. All the remaining World War II veterans could be sent right away, Duncan said, if everyone in Kansas donated $1 to the program.
In this economy though, Curtis said, money is everything.
"Most of the other 90 other honor flight hubs work with a budget of $1,000 per veteran and only spend one day of travel," Curtis said. "We are able to do all this, including meals, for $650 per person. We have the best-quality trip that's known."