Community supports local veterans on Honor Flight
There was a heartwarming hero’s welcome at San Diego International Airport on Oct. 3 for World War II and Korean War veterans returning home from their Honor Flight to Washington D.C. Veterans were greeted with serviceman and first responders saluting, cheers and applause, American flags waving and patriotic music playing as just one small way to say thank you to those who served and sacrificed.
The trip was put on by Honor Flight San Diego, a nonprofit completely staffed by volunteers. Every dollar raised goes toward gifting veterans with a three-day trip to Washington D.C. to recognize their contributions to this country and visit the memorials dedicated to their service. Each trip ends with a hero’s homecoming at the airport, a homecoming some never got.
“This year’s trip was the biggest we’ve ever done,” said Stacey Halboth, Honor Flight team leader and R. Roger Rowe School teacher.
A total of 94 veterans went on the trip, including those who served in World War II, the Korean War and one Vietnam War veteran.
There were six veterans over 100 years old and six women, two U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and four female Korean War Marines. The oldest veteran on the trip was Bob Brown, a 104-year-old World War II veteran who served in the Navy for 30 years.
While visiting the Military Women’s Memorial, each woman on the trip was honored and WWII veteran and Solana Beach resident Winona Ruth Gunther received a Living Legacy Award in recognition of being a great woman patriot and a pharmacist mate first class who blazed a trail for the next generation of military women.
Halboth said Honor Flight volunteers worked extremely hard this year and they felt the love, especially with everyone coming off a difficult pandemic year. The trip would not have been possible without the support of the community.
Grace Miller, now a seventh grader at Pacific Ridge School, started supporting Honor Flight when she was a third grader at Rowe with her friend Madison Stine. The girls were motivated to help after they learned that Honor Fight almost had to cancel a trip due to a lack of funds.
This year Grace sent her fourth veteran, raising the $2,500 cost for the trip through her earnings at equestrian competitions. The veteran she sponsored was Gunner Ward, a Korean War veteran who said he was so grateful that a student would take the time to fundraise for such a cause.
Grace credits her Rowe teachers Halboth and Janel Maud for being her inspirations—learning about Honor Flight at school left a big impact on her. Grace has committed herself to always raise money for Honor Flight and she said she hopes it is something that continues and never goes away.
“This is important to me because I can help send veterans who served our country to go see their memorials,” Grace said. “It is a huge accomplishment and something that they should be able to see.”
Halboth, who is in her 31st year at R. Roger Rowe, first got involved in Honor Flight as part of a hero’s welcome at the airport. In 2018, she served as a guardian (escort) for veteran George Sousa, a Korean War veteran and Purple Heart recipient from Rancho Santa Fe who was sponsored by Grace and Madison’s fundraising. Grace said she still sometimes talks with Sousa—Halboth said she considers George one of her best friends.
As the May 2020 trip was canceled due to COVID-19, Halboth and Sousa set a goal to fundraise to send 10 veterans on the trip—they ended up raising enough to send 11. Jane, Carl and Steven Rowe, the children of school namesake Roger Rowe sent a veteran, as did the Rancho Santa Fe Rotary and Del Mar Rotary.
As Sousa told Halboth about his own Honor Flight: “It was a healing I didn’t know I needed.”
There are so many wonderful stories like this that Halboth finds priceless. She meets veterans who selflessly served their countries and led incredible lives and she sees how powerful Honor Flight can be for someone like Dick Erickson, a 96-year-old WWII veteran from Fallbrook who was on her team this year.
“He’s literally a new man, he loves Honor Flight,” she said. “He was blown away by it all.”
On the trip, in addition to seeing the monuments raised in their honor, the veterans experience camaraderie, being together with other people who lived what they lived through.
“It’s like no other,” Halboth said. “I cried a couple times an hour. It’s so moving.”
This year, R. Roger Rowe School and a Rancho Santa Fe community donor sent one of the six women veterans: Winona Ruth Gunther, the WWII veteran from Solana Beach who turns 102 in November.
Gunther has been a Solana Beach resident since 1962 when she moved with her late husband Herb, a fellow WWII veteran who accepted a job as principal at Earl Warren Middle School. The school is close by to where she lives now, in the La Vida Del Mar senior community where the sharp centenarian has her own radio show.
On Oct. 11 she shared her story as a woman in the military and her Honor Flight experience with fellow residents. Honor Flight team leader Leslie Granger, the proud daughter of a World War II veteran who this year went on her 11th Honor Flight, interviewed Gunther for her radio show.
“When I meet people like Ruth I’m so inspired because I learn so much and I want to learn more,” she said.
It was after Pearl Harbor that Gunther told her mother that she wanted to serve. She recalled her mother saying: “A daughter of mine in the military? What would your father say?”
She knew her father would be proud— he had passed away in 1941 but had instilled in her such a strong love of country. As Gunther wrote one of two memoirs she penned in her 90s, an excerpt read by Granger: “This is something I feel I have to do.”
Gunther was 23 and working as a pharmacist when she volunteered to be among the first WAVES in 1942, aiming to join the hospital corps. She was worried about leaving her mother alone with her 11 siblings: “I was the oldest one at home and I knew she was going to miss me,” she said.
Eventually three of Gunther’s siblings would follow her into service, including her sister who joined the Marines. “My mother had four blue stars hanging in her window and, fortunately for her, none of them became a gold star.”
After volunteering, Gunther traveled by train to Chicago and onto boot camp at Hunter College in Bronx, New York. From there she went by train to corps school at the Naval Medical Center San Diego (She recalled that women were told to walk on campus in a “business-like gait” and had to be accompanied by a male back to the barracks). “I earned my first stripe after corps school and I was so so proud,” she said,
From San Diego she went to Corona Naval Hospital in Norco, where for the rest of the war she cared for wounded from every battle in the Pacific theater.
“One of the hardest things was that these kids were so young. One of my patients was 17 and he had gotten to be 17 at Guadalcanal,” she said of the site of the first major offensive and victory for the Allies in the Pacific. “He reminded me of my little brother. It felt like he needed a mother, he was missing his mother.”
Gunther said she loved her time in the service with her fellow WAVES, who came from all different backgrounds, races and religions and became like family. She said there were mixed emotions when the war ended and they returned to their lives, forever changed by their experiences.
On her whirlwind trip of D.C., in addition to the great honor of being recognized at the Military Women’s Memorial, Gunther said she was very touched by the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. The memorial features three uniformed nurses caring for a wounded soldier, representing the virtues of faith, hope and charity—it opened in 1993 as the first monument on the National Mall dedicated to women’s military service.
Each Honor Flight includes a surprise “mail call”, where veterans receive notes and cards from family members, friends and strangers, many of them young students. For the 104-year-old Brown, Halboth called up his high school in Needles, Calif. where he was class of 1935. Current high school students wrote him heartfelt letters. On Oct. 11, Halboth delivered a late-arriving mail call for Gunther, a package of 50 notes written by juniors and seniors from her alma mater of Twin Lakes High School in Indiana.
“I’m honored to be writing you a letter,” one read. “We are so proud of you.”
As a teacher, Halboth wants her young students to understand that this history is not so long ago and that these living legends have valuable stories to share.
Several Rowe students were at the airport for the hero’s welcome on Oct. 3. Rowe student Sloan Harris, who had made a birthday card for the oldest veteran on the trip, was able to meet and greet Brown, remarking with wonder: “I met a 104-year-old!”
While welcoming the veterans home, third grader Ivy Hauenstein received a warm, unprompted hug from one of the veterans who was just so happy to see her.
Max Gurney, a 100-year-old World War II veteran from La Jolla remarked to Halboth upon hearing the cheers of gratitude and seeing the flags waving the red, white and blue: “This represents the soul of America.”
Gunther agreed with the sentiment.
“You see the news and you wonder what is happening with our country but every place we went…people walked up and thanked us for our service,” she said. “I see all of the kids coming to honor us and I think, maybe our country will make it.”
The next Honor Flight will be in the spring 2022 and they are always looking for more veterans to send and volunteers. Applications are available online at honorflightsandiego.org
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