For Lance Stephensen, every day is Memorial Day. He works nearly full time as the volunteer director of Honor Flight of Idaho, the group that flies World War II veterans to the nation’s capital to visit their memorial.
The story of how that came to happen began in Vietnam, and on Mountain Home Air Force Base.
Stephensen’s father was a fighter pilot stationed at the base. Lance Stephensen will never forget the day – he was 10 then – when he and his sister were called out of class at the base school.
“When we got home, a staff car pulled up in front of the house. They told Mom that Dad was an MIA. We didn’t even know what that meant then.”
Their father, Col. Mark L. Stephensen, had been shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission in North Vietnam. His remains weren’t found and identified until 1988. He was an MIA for 21 years.
Stephensen did what he could to learn his father’s fate. He wrote letters to congressmen. He watched every North Vietnamese propaganda film he could in hopes of catching a glimpse of his dad. He served as director of the Boise Valley POW/MIA Corp. and as state coordinator of the National League of POW/MIA Families.
He was speaking about his POW/MIA work at Nampa’s Warhawk Air Museum when he learned that a group of Idaho WWII veterans had been rejected for an Honor Flight from Spokane because they weren’t from Washington.
“The hub was in Spokane, and they wanted to give priority to veterans from Washington,” he said. “It broke my heart that these Idaho guys who had applied and were looking forward to it couldn’t go. So I asked what it would take to get a hub in Idaho.”
What it took, essentially, was Stephensen. He felt so bad for the Idaho vets that he contacted the Honor Flight Network headquarters in Springfield, Ohio, did the legwork and started a hub in Boise.
“I thought I had about 30 vets I needed to take care of,” he said. “In less than two weeks, I was 130 applications behind.”
Twenty-eight veterans and 20 guardians boarded the first Honor Flight from Boise in 2012. A second flight followed last year.
“Many of them had never been to D.C. before. One said he thought everybody had forgotten them. It was heartbreaking.”
The average age of the veterans on the Idaho Honor Flights: 92. Five were in the first wave of the D-Day invasion. Former Marine Don Brown of Boise was on Mount Suribachi when the iconic photo was taken of Marines raising the flag there, one of the most reproduced photos of all time.
“The flight was a wonderful experience,” Brown said. “I’d never been back east before. People clapped and shook our hands when we showed up. It was very gratifying.”
“A lot of these guys would never get to see our memorial otherwise,” WWII army veteran Roger Guernsey said. “And Honor Flight is such a fabulous program. It covers everything. I took $100 in spending money and spent $5 of it.”
“One of the guys told me the trip was the best thing he’d ever done,” Stephensen said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute – you got married and had kids and everything.’ And he said, ‘No, this is the most honorable thing I’ve ever done.'”
Everywhere they went, the veterans got the heroes’ welcome they so deeply deserve.
“Water cannons hose down the plane at every stop, an honor usually reserved for retiring pilots,” Stephensen said. “The joke was that we had the cleanest plane in Southwest’s fleet.
“The pilots and flight attendants shake their hands and thank them for what they did during the war. When the flight attendants announce that they’re honored to have members of the greatest generation aboard, everyone applauds. People in airports shake their hands and thank them for their service. It humbles them, and they’re already humble.
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, four of the veterans were selected to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony during the changing of the guard.
“Sixty military people in uniform were there for the ceremony, “Stephensen said. “They all shook their hands and hugged them. I couldn’t stop crying.”
His only regret, he says, “is that we can’t do five flights a year. I’d like to start doing two a year, in May and September.”
The trip costs $1,000 for each veteran and guardian. Southwest donated $1.3 million in flights for Honor Flight groups nationally, but those run out this year. Stephensen initially paid many of the costs himself, but now the group relies on donations.
In time the program will transition to Korea and Vietnam veterans.
But for WWII vets, time is growing short. Half of the 14,000 who were living in Idaho in 2011 have died since then. At that rate, it won’t be long before the soldiers and sailors who saved the world from tyranny will be gone. The time to thank them for their service is now.
To donate or to apply for a flight, click on http://www.honorflightidaho.com.