By Lisa Shrewsberry
Dreama Denver, philanthropist, owner/operator of Little Buddy Radio out of Princeton and wife of the late Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island fame, has a new mission, and she’s unloaded her share of tissues and gratitude since coordinating the special annual expedition.
She calls it “hanging out with heroes,” but the official name for the upcoming third trip sponsored by her non-profit Denver Foundation is the Always Free Honor Flight.
Though technically not a “flight” locally, as the name of the national program would indicate, the D.C. trip is the only organized all-expenses-paid excursion serving veterans in West Virginia, and is now accepting applications for their May 2013 trip. Veterans of World War II and the Korean War are given chronological preference in securing reservations, but veterans of any war may apply.
What happens in the process of honoring America’s heroes from the greatest generation and beyond, according to Denver, is nothing short of miraculous.
“We’ll leave Princeton in the wee hours of the morning on May 15 on a luxury bus. We’ll make a few stops and get to the U.S. Capitol grounds around 9 a.m.,” she explains, just in time for the bus to be checked in by security and for veterans, many of whom have never visited the executive seat of the country they risked their lives to defend, to experience a day of due honor.
Denver works with her humble staff of three for months in advance to plan a welcome befitting a hero — a meet and greet with Senators Manchin and Rockefeller, and Congressman Rahall and their respective staffs, followed by tours of the World War II, Korean War Memorial and Vietnam Memorials. Veterans also have free time and volunteers at their disposal helping to chaperone them to other famous D.C. sites.
“Any veteran from any branch of service is welcome to go, but right now we have no World War II veterans. There aren’t many still living and in good health. Even if you’re not in the best of health, as long as you’re able to ride in a wheelchair, you can go. World War II veterans will remain top priority, then veterans of the Korean War living in West Virginia, then Vietnam veterans,” explains Denver. Those World War II veterans she has been able to take on the last two trips have done the trip with “gusto,” she explains, even when the family was concerned about their ability to make the trip. A few have taken to the microphone with their own stand-up comedy routines to while away the hours on the trip back. The anticipation and the resulting experience is both moving and energizing to those involved. “You’d think there’d be complaining along the way, but there isn’t. It’s like they’re 18 again.”
Necessities for the veterans’ journey once in Princeton, including meals, are paid for by the Denver Foundation. Denver and her staff have also arranged for family discounts at Country Inn and Suites in Princeton for families traveling some distance within the state to bring their veteran and needing to stay until the veterans’ return the following night. “It takes almost exactly 24 hours,” Denver explains.
She gives credit for the idea to Little Buddy Radio co-host Charlie Thomas, who introduced her to an Honor Flight program he was affiliated with in Missouri. “We checked the facts and we have more veterans per capita than any other state, but we didn’t have an Honor Flight until now.”
For some, believes Denver, the honor has been a long time coming. “I’ve seen many a Vietnam veteran cry,” she admits. As others approach the group of veterans along their route and recognize them with heartfelt handshakes and sentiments of thanks, old, internal walls come down. “If I could only tell you how many said it was the first time in their lives they were ever thanked for their service. There are a lot of tears and emotion on the trip, even days after, you’ll realize just what happened.”
A 91-year-old World War II veteran is the oldest to make the journey, so far. The youngest World War II veteran was 83 or 84. He owed his status as the group’s spring chicken to a lie he told long ago, a noble mistruth if ever one were told, saying he was old enough for combat at only 16 years old.
On the last trip, Denver amplified the multi-generational aspect by contacting Jr. ROTC leaders with a challenge to nominate one cadet per school to accompany the veterans and provide general assistance for the day’s itinerary.
“When you are walking through the halls of the Capitol and you see a Jr. ROTC cadet pushing the wheelchair of a World War II veteran, it’s the most majestic scene you can imagine.
“So many of the men who fought for our freedom were from West Virginia. We’re not that far from D.C. and yet so many have never been to the nation’s capitol.”
Call 304-425-8660 or 304-320-6032 to request an application for the May 15 Always Free Honor Flight. Those receiving applications are encouraged to make as many copies as needed to reach other W.Va. veterans. Deadline for application is early April.
Interested in supporting Always Free Honor Flight? Purchasing a brick for the Always Free Veterans Walk of Honor to be constructed as part of the War Memorial in downtown Princeton will help. Bricks for honoring veterans with an engraved sentiment are $50 each, and the proceeds go toward continuing the Always Free Honor Flight program.
Donations may be made online at bobdenver.com or mailed to the Denver Foundation: Always Free Honor Flight, P.O. Box 931, Princeton, WV 24740.
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