Ever tempted to lose your faith in the essential goodness of human nature? Worried that our country is irreparably divided? A flight across the country with a group of iconic war heroes from long-term care facilities can do wonders for restoring one’s faith in humanity and hope for the future.
I know we frequently mourn the loss of basic civility and kindness these days, but as I’ve traveled this week with 13 veterans and two Holocaust survivors on the annual Journey of Heroes, I can confirm that warmth and civility is alive and well in our nation’s airplanes and airports. This is my fifth such trip, and the positive jolt it gives to my spirit always feels like two defibrillation paddles straight to the heart.
Journey of Heroes is sponsored by Wish of a Lifetime and the Vital Life Foundation. To date, nearly 100 veterans have been taken, all expenses paid, to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials created in their honor. They span a service range from World War II to the Vietnam War, across all branches of the military.
Over the years, they’ve represented the full range of mobility and physical challenges, from wheelchair bound to one 90-year-old World War II veteran who beat me up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But in all the time I’ve been involved, I have never met a flight attendant who was brusque, a pilot who didn’t pause to share deep appreciation or a passenger who expressed visible annoyance.
I’m not here to shill for corporate America, so I won’t identify the airline — just that it’s named after the state in which you can see Russia from Sarah Palin’s porch. I don’t know if it’s the training or simply the experience gleaned from many such flights into Reagan National Airport, but these people have it down to a science.
If you’ve traveled by air lately, and don’t have your own private jet, you’re well aware that even the most direct and on-time flight can evoke frustration, as passengers scrap for overhead space and tensions flare. So you’d expect all sorts of volatile emotions to erupt from delays created when veterans have to be transferred from wheelchairs to aisle trolleys to aircraft seats, or use the bathrooms pre-takeoff. All the conditions are perfect for conflict, but I’ve never seen it happen.
Most of this is probably due to the incredible flight crews, who are infinitely patient and attentive, almost implausibly so. For a while, I thought I had just coincidentally stumbled upon some unusually caring and self-actualized professionals — until I realized it was happening all the time, flight after flight, year after year.
But it’s the passengers who are perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Though our nation’s heroes don’t move down an airplane aisle or jetway quite as fast as they marched across France, the strangers waiting to board or disembark are predominantly patient, kind and surprisingly placid about the delay.
For instance, when we landed in our nation’s capital this time, the terminal was crowded and hot, and tempers could easily have been on the edge. But these folks crowded around our gate, phones in the air like they were waiting for Taylor Swift. They erupted in applause as every single one of our veterans exited the plane. It probably took close to 45 minutes, but I heard not a grumble or complaint.
So unless dark forces are secretly piping Xanax into the terminal air supply or spiking our complimentary soft drinks, there’s just something about being in the presence of a true hero that seems to unite us and extract our better angels. In fact, as cynicism and negativity gets oppressive in the world around us, it’s unfortunate we can’t each keep a veteran on permanent retainer, always close by to provide instant positive perspective and inspiration.
I don’t know how to operationalize that concept, but it could be very effective. That way, whenever a politician says or does something outrageous that makes us anxious or angry and tempts us to respond cruelly in kind, we could look over to our veteran, make eye contact, and remember what they fought for — and how it certainly wasn’t for the right to tear ourselves apart.
Just by existing and lending their influence with wisdom, kindness and quiet dignity, our heroes can help bring us together and point the way to a more positive future — not only in the sky, but on the ground.
Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.