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Honor Flight - encore flights for WWII vets

The Honor Flight program, begun in 2005, was created to allow as many American veterans of World War II as possible to visit, free of charge, the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The memorial was completed and dedicated in 2004, at a time when most surviving veterans from the era were over 80 years old and were not likely to have the means or support to travel to see the memorial on their own. Shortly after the dedication, the concept of Honor Flight was established. The idea transformed into a nationwide group of volunteers dedicated to giving a free trip to every American WWII veteran who wanted to see the memorial. Now, the Honor Flight network advises and supports this mission through the work of local community groups.

Honor Flight South Dakota has put on several flights. According to Bill Casper, a representative of the organization, it is looking at holding two more encore flights. One would fly out of Sioux Falls and one would originate out of Rapid City. The flight out of Rapid City is tentatively planned to not depart until April or later, and would also depend on when the one out of Sioux Falls would be scheduled.

"We have used planes that take 165 passengers and we aim for 120 veterans each flight. The remaining seats are taken by the medical staff and the guardians, each of whom pay their own way of $750," said Casper.

Once in Washington, D.C., the group is escorted through a full agenda of memorials and sites. Wheelchairs and other items are available for those veterans who need or would simply like the use of them. Guardians assist the veterans throughout the two-day trip.

Casper reported, as of the 2007 census, there were approximately 7,000 WWII veterans alive in South Dakota. Honor Flight South Dakota has had 10 flights to Washington, D.C. That accounts for approximately 1,200 veterans.

"If we estimate that on average of four vets have died per day in South Dakota, we have lost approximately 4,320 since 2007. Add that to the 1,200 who have flown and we come up with approximately 480 who could still go. That is a rough estimate, but I'm not sure we could come up with any other statistics that would give us a more accurate number. The 4,320 who have died is rather sobering. The more sobering number is that by next spring there might not be enough left alive to have two more flights," said Casper.

"Each flight costs approximately $130,000. We have raised around $200,000 thus far for our next two flights. Our main push is to get as many veterans signed up as possible," said Casper.

Casper said that his committee is in preliminary discussions about if there are any remaining funds after the encore flights. "One idea has been to build a small museum to honor Honor Flight. We would house pictures, videos, testimony, memorabilia, etc. at the museum," said Casper. "Another idea which has been brought up is extending this honor flight idea to Korean War veterans. But right now our focus is getting every remaining World War II veteran to Washington, D.C."

For more information, to donate or to sign up for an encore flight, visit the Honor Flight South Dakota Web site of www. honorflightsd.org/, or e-mail to honorflightsd@gmail.com, or write to Honor Flight South Dakota, P.O. Box 947, Sioux Falls, SD 57104.