DANVILLE — When people ask Tom Morse how he liked the recent Honor Flight, he replies, “It was the second best day of my life.”
Of course, the best was the day he married Audry Morse, also an Army veteran who went on the Land of Lincoln trip with her husband.
“The Honor Flight made us feel special,” Audry said. “It’s a true privilege to be able to go.”
The Morses were among 92 Vietnam and Korean War-era veterans who boarded the flight on Oct. 29 for the day-long trip to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials erected in their honor.
Both veterans from the Vietnam War-era, the Morses were one of the few married couples who have taken the flight, and Audry was one of only two female veterans.
Because they’re in good health, the Morses were allowed to share a guardian, who made sure things went smoothly.
On the flight were a reporter and photographer with The New York Times.
Audry and Tom said they put in their Honor Flight applications a year and a half ago, and they urge other veterans to apply now.
“You want to do it when you’re still healthy,” Audry said. “It’s nonstop walking.” Wheelchairs are available to those who need them.
One fun part of the trip was the police escort, which Land of Lincoln paid for so the four motor coaches could get through traffic quickly. That extra time allowed the veterans to visit the U.S. Navy Plaza.
Tom’s favorite stop was the Korean War memorial with its life-like statues trudging through the fields, saying, “It was impressive.”
Also, he said, “I liked meeting all those veterans from Illinois and talking to them.”
Audry liked the World War II memorial the best, mentioning the 4,048 stars on Freedom Wall. Each star represents 100 people who died or were missing in action during the war.
She made an effort to read all the plaques and names at the various memorials, and reflected on all of the men and women who lost their lives.
At Arlington National Cemetery, they saw the solemn changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
“It was very methodical and very impressive,” Tom said, adding that the guards take 21 steps on each march past the memorial.
They also spent an hour and a half at the National Air and Space Museum.
The Air Force Memorial was interesting with its three stainless steel spires soaring 402 feet into the sky. The Morses learned that if the memorial had been built before Sept. 11, 2001, its spires would have prevented the terrorists from crashing into the nearby Pentagon building.
Other sites included the Vietnam War memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial.
When the veterans arrived at the Ronald Reagan National Airport, they were greeted by hundreds of people with flags and cheers.
“That caught me by surprise,” Tom said. “It was a very spontaneous welcome. It was very overwhelming to us.”
That started a day of emotional responses to all the kind words and handshakes shared by strangers, as well as the memorials.
On the flight back to Springfield, each veteran received a packet of letters and cards. Students at Massac County High School in Metropolis wrote several letters to the Morses.
“It was touching to read those. It was just amazing,” Tom said.
In fact, Audry said the experience made her want to become involved with Soldiers’ Angels support group.
At Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, they were overwhelmed again by the crowd that greeted them — 1,500 to 2,000 people, including Betsy Ross, Uncle Sam and bagpipers.
Both had tears in their eyes, and it took them 45 minutes to get through the crowd of well-wishes.
At the end of the line, each veteran received a patriotic lap blanket made by members of the Refuge Full Gospel Church in southern Illinois. Audry was deeply touched by the gift.
Both were impressed with how smoothly the trip went.
“We never spent a penny,” Tom said. “Everything was taken care of meticulously.”
Audry and Tom both come from military families, and met while stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. She was in the nurses’ barracks, studying to become a licensed practical nurse, and he was living in the barracks after having returned from Vietnam.
Tom served as a medic from 1972-76, working with the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. He also cared for burn victims in Vietnam. Audry served from 1973-80.
They were married in 1976, and both later worked at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System. They have three sons: Andy of Danville; Matt, a lieutenant colonel in the Army; and Tommy, chief in the Navy.
ABOUT HONOR FLIGHT
Honor Flight is free to veterans, but guardians undergo training and pay a fee.
Veteran applications continue to be accepted with flight priority given in the following order: World War II (enlisted by Dec. 31, 1946), then Korean War era (Jan. 1, 1947 to Dec. 31, 1957), followed by the Vietnam War era (Jan. 1, 1958, to May 7, 1975). Any certified terminally ill veteran should contact Land of Lincoln directly.
Because every veteran flies with a guardian escort, applications for future guardians also are being accepted. This may be any able-bodied person, 18-70 years old, except for veterans who have already been honored with a flight or a spouse/significant other of a veteran on a flight.
The guardian fee includes Land of Lincoln training, cap and T-shirt, round-trip flight, bus tour during the day, meals and snacks, refreshments and the privilege of spending the day honoring the veterans.
Land of Lincoln is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization that receives no government funding. It honors the veteran with a trip to D.C. due to generous donations, sponsorships, fundraising events, merchandise sales and supporting efforts of the many local businesses, individuals and organizations within its service area.
Land of Lincoln Honor Flight has no paid staff, no office and no utilities costs. Ongoing administrative cost is about 1 percent; virtually every dollar raised supports flight costs for veterans.
Since its inception in 2009, Land of Lincoln Honor Flight has served 4,546 veterans on 58 flights.