Honor Flight veterans gather at the United States Marine Corps War Memorial.
Duty Calls: The Honor Flight Program
The wounds of war, whether to flesh or soul, are not easily healed. But honoring the bravery, courage, and sacrifice of our veterans is a worthy place to start.
This is one of the primary reasons Southwest has been such a staunch supporter of the Honor Flight Network, a non-profit that transports U.S. veterans, free of charge, to Washington, D.C., to visit the nation’s war memorials. Year after year, Honor Flights promote genuine healing. Healing among fellow veterans. Healing within families. And healing within the psyches of individual soldiers, who seem to draw extraordinary strength and pride from the simple act of both remembering and being remembered.
This partnership harkens back to one of the earliest Honor Flights in Phoenix in 2004, when a group of Southwest Employees voluntarily cheered on World War II vets as they boarded their plane. Southwest was so touched by the stories Employees shared that it formalized its support in 2009 by providing Honor Flight with complimentary round trip travel tickets.
Then, two years later, Southwest became the official partner of the Lone Eagle Program, which helps veterans who live beyond the reach of centrally located Honor Flight chapters to participate in these flights. In all, Southwest has been directly responsible for flying more than 9,000 veterans on 400 Honor Flights to the greater Washington, D.C., area.
The Honor Flight Network coordinates the itineraries, organizes ground transportation, and oversees the tours in Washington, D.C. Southwest assumes responsibility for bookending those tours with equally memorable moments. Before every Honor Flight, notifications are sent to Operational Teams to let them know the “vets are coming.” From there, Southwest Employees show their LUV in a variety of ways in the airport and on the planes, from organizing cheering sections to calling airport fire departments to provide water cannon tributes.
“Our Employees work together to ensure they have a seamless travel experience,” says Senior Advisor Megan Lee. “Our Employees are always so touched to see them come through the airport and to have a chance to thank them for their service in person. We hear that all the time—that our Employees are so proud that we’re a part of this program.”
That was certainly the case for Southwest Captain John Freed, who accompanied his father, Bob, on a deeply emotional Father’s Day Honor Flight in 2019.
Both men are distinguished Air Force veterans. Bob served as a staff sergeant in Thailand, the Philippines, and Okinawa, Japan, during the Vietnam War, and John, a lieutenant colonel, supported combat missions, decades later, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until they shared an Honor Flight—what John called, “One of the greatest moments of my life with my Dad”—that they could stand, shoulder to shoulder, before some of the nation’s most hallowed monuments and exchange experiences and emotions so freely with each other.
During the journey, civilian and military crowds alike gathered to applaud and salute them. They captured photos and visited gravesites together. And when the emotion proved too overwhelming for mere words, they embraced each other with the kind of bear hug only a father and son can muster. “Being with my son is number one,” said Bob. “It’s like gold.”
Lieutenant Colonel and Southwest Captain John Freed hugs his father, Staff Sergeant Bob Freed, near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Honor Flights provide ample evidence that a single flight can produce indelible moments for veterans and Southwest Employees. Just ask any Southwest Employee who’s pushed a wheelchair-bound veteran, eyes twinkling with excitement, toward the gate. Or the Flight Attendants who’ve been known to choke back tears after being regaled with war stories that were rarely shared outside a veteran’s own platoon or family. In the end, the respect and pride radiate in both directions, flowing back and forth between Customers and Crew.
Inevitably, individual experiences transform into collective ones. During these journeys, former soldiers, even the most tight-lipped of them, show an uncanny ability to bond—and bond quickly. You see it all the time. Two ex-soldiers, running their fingers across names etched into the marble of the Vietnam Memorial, counteract old feelings of loss with a newfound sense of brotherhood. Veterans, staring at the phrase “Here We Mark the Price of Freedom” at the World War II Memorial, exchange knowing looks that evolve into deep conversations.
Honor Flight veterans receive applause, flag-waving, and grateful thanks.
That’s what happened to Vietnam vet Lucy when she joined an all-female Honor Flight trip in 2016. “I mean I could travel, you know, anywhere with anybody,” she said, “but this was a military woman trip, so it was a trip of a lifetime.”
Southwest Flight Attendants wait to conduct one of Honor Flight’s most touching moments—a pre-coordinated “Mail Call”—until the plane ride home. It’s one part catharsis, one part closure. Flight Attendants walk the aisles, passing out notes penned by everyone from schoolchildren to Southwest Employees. A moment of silence usually ensues, followed by smiles and tearful looks. “It’s just another way,” says Megan, “to personally thank them for their service.”
Finally, many Honor Flights conclude with a small gathering of flag-waving Southwest volunteers, young and old, who hold up handmade posters and cheer veterans upon their arrival back home, providing them the final salute they’ve all so richly earned.
As World War II vet Roland, who experienced a Southwest-sponsored Honor Flight in 2013, noted, “One of the most important moments for me were the expressions of the people who came up to us thanking us for our service. It was so absolutely soul-feeding.”