Editor’s note: Throughout the week, the Missoulian is updating readers on the people and places that made headlines in 2012.
Becky Hillier didn’t fight in World War II, but she spent a lot of time in 2012 with some of those who did.
“Other than having my children, it was the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” she said.
Hillier, media relations director for Rocky Mountain Hospice in Billings, helped get the Big Sky Honor Flight Project off the ground. The program flew 184 war veterans on two trips to Washington, D.C., in June and September.
Now, it’s laying plans and raising money for three more trips in 2013. Flights are tentatively set for late April, May, and either June or September.
The 36-hour journeys are moving experiences for World War II and terminally ill veterans, men and women, most of them in their late 80s or 90s. Don Held of Billings, who was drafted at age 32, was 102 when he took the September flight.
A Vietnam veteran who was in hospice care was moved to the top of the list and took the first honor flight in June. He died in November.
“He said Honor Flight was the best thing he’d ever done in his life,” Hillier said. “To be able to provide something like that ... it’s pretty special.”
The flights are pricey, averaging $155,000 each. But they don’t cost veterans a dime. They include nonstop charter flights and lodging; wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and other medical accommodations; and a five-member medical staff. Participants attend an honor dinner and visit the spectacular World War II Memorial that opened in 2004.
Nearly 100,000 veterans from more than 35 states have taken part since 2005.
Hillier said 500 men and women have applied for seats on the Big Sky Honor Flights. It costs roughly $1,000 to send one veteran, so fundraisers big and small are key.
In 2010, there were 8,800 World War II veterans living in Montana, Hillier said. That number is dropping quickly – 900 were dying each day in the U.S., according to 2011 estimates.
Time has become the enemy.
“We’ve already lost about a dozen World War II veterans who applied to go, so there is a real sense of urgency about this,” Hillier said. “We’re not going to be fundraising through infinity. We’re doing this for a very short period of time, fast and furiously, so we can raise those funds to send these men and women back who have waited, in some cases, 60 or 70 years for this opportunity to see the memorial and to be honored for their service.”
The goal is to make sure every World War II veteran who is able to go and wants to go gets to.
“Awareness is the key,” she said. “We want these vets to know this is real, that it isn’t a dream.”
For many, it’s a way of putting to rest the horrors of war. The visits to the World War II Memorial have been extremely moving, for veterans and volunteers alike. Hillier said you see perfect strangers sharing their experiences, shaking hands and hugging. Many an eye wells up with tears.
“It’s just so powerful and it makes these veterans feel so valued,” she said. “It really validates their experience. This is their final mission, and we want to make sure they’re able to complete it.”
A documentary film, “Honor Flight the Movie,” profiles four Wisconsin veterans and their experiences in the war and on Honor Flight. It premiered in Milwaukee in August to more than 28,000 people and will soon begin screening in Montana. Tentative dates for the Missoula shows are Feb. 12 and 13.
Donations to Big Sky Honor Flight are tax deductible. For information visit bigskyhonorflight.org or call (406) 690-4613.
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.