Every year about this time, I tell you eagerly and often weepily about “The Trip.” The one where 12 veterans, many of them from World War II and living in long-term care, get to hop on a plane to Washington, DC, to see first-hand the memorials created in their honor.
It’s called the Journey of Heroes, an annual adventure sponsored by Wish of a Lifetime and the Vital Life Foundation. I’ve been privileged to tag along on the past four of these missions shooting photos and video, trying my little heart out to somehow capture the spirit of it all so people like you can better understand what happened and why it’s so meaningful.
Usually, telling this story involves all the emotional and flowery language I can muster, and by the time I’m finished writing about it, there’s an empty box of Kleenex at my elbow, tissues piled high around my feet and smoke pouring from the attic at thesaurus.com. This year, I’ve finally given up on words, since to show is infinitely better than to tell.
Fortunately, most of my favorite moments happened while I had a bunch of nerdy video gear hanging around my neck. Starting with the TSA agent who took the initiative and time to salute our veterans as they passed through security, and continuing with a whole plane-load of people singing God Bless America to them. In fact, we couldn’t go anywhere without a stranger saying thank you, as this random encounter proves.
The best part of the four-day trip, of course, was simply getting to know these heroes and being with them night and day — though I’m sure they were plenty tired of me and my cameras by the time it was over. I chased 91-year-old Nick up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and a couple times he had to stop to let me catch up. Paul always had a twinkle in his eye, and his grandkids showed up in DC to surprise him. Mission accomplished.
Then there was Jerry, our favorite Ronald Reagan look-alike. He and I maintained a steady stream of chatter sitting across the aisle from each other on the plane, though after my 20th time begging him to say, “There you go again,” I suspect he longed to have me targeted for removal by a “Star Wars” defense missile.
The trip got a lot more serious when we finally poured off the bus to see the memorials on the National Mall, and especially at Arlington National Cemetery. Ray was so moved after watching the Changing of the Guard for the first time that he could hardly speak. “How can anybody disrespect this country?” he asked, through tears. “We fought for it, I think everybody should respect it.”
All the videos I just described above are available on the Journey of Heroes Facebook page, along with hundreds of photos and thread after thread of grateful messages to and from this incredible group of veterans. As happens every year, it changed my life to meet them, I miss them every day, and I was incredibly honored to be trusted to document their Journey.
But nothing speaks to their service and sacrifice like this video, which we captured at the World War II memorial and released on Veterans Day. Watch it, I beg you, then try to convince me there are greater and nobler heroes than these.
But I should warn you: You won’t succeed.