McLean resident and WW II Veteran, Donald Gebhardt, served as an Army Air Corp radar repairman and was stationed in Okinawa, Guam and Saipan. This past month, he fulfilled an 8-year old dream by visiting the WWII memorial in Washington DC, as part of the American Warrior’s Honor Flight program.
Donald’s daughter, Nancy Fields, said that her husband Howard first learned about American Warrior’s Day of Honor when reading about its inception in the local news. At that time, she said, “Dad was living in Michigan and was the primary caregiver for my mother. The trip to DC wasn’t feasible. However, Howard kept ‘the seed alive’ and knew that we just had to get Dad down there.” When Donald moved to Simsbury in 2013, they connected him with the East Granby Veterans Club. This was instrumental in registering him with the National Service Registry and putting him on the wait list for a CT Honor Flight.
This Spring, the regional supervisor contacted them to say this would be the final large trip departing from CT, and she pushed the family to take part, reassuring them that trained medical support would be able to accommodate Donald all along this special journey.
With American Warrior’s help, their very special volunteer guardian, Bill Fiochetta, and enthusiastic preparation and motivation by the McLean staff, Donald and his family prepared for his adventure. “Bill met with us and with McLean several times, to get to know Dad and understand the care he would need throughout the day. The Nurses at McLean ‘got him pumped’ and encouraged him when he started to worry about his mobility. They handled his medication and supplies and even got him a special haircut for the occasion! This never would have been possible without them,” explained Nancy. Donald chimed in, “We feel really good about McLean’s nursing staff. I have a special connection with them and even have a few favorites.”
The day’s festivities spanned from 6:00 am when the shuttle picked Donald up at McLean’s front door for Bradley Airport – to after 9:00 pm. Every detail was planned to make this a momentous occasion, beginning with a grand send -off at the airport-- complete with bagpipes and Color Guard from a local military post. Once they arrived in DC, they enjoyed an exclusive personal tour of the branches of service memorials and lunch with a bugle and drum core accompaniment. One of Donald’s favorite memories of the day was being able to personally view his name inscribed on the WW II Memorial. A mail call was read on the flight home, and each Veteran received something from his/her family and from school children across the country. “The whole thing was first class. They really did it up right”, smiled Donald. I felt like I was back in the Service again! The homecoming was even better than when I got back from overseas!”
Nancy explained the scene as they welcomed back this CT Honor flight. “The airport terminal was completely full of families and friends at least an hour before their arrival. There were flags, posters, live music, and enthusiastic supporters who just wanted to take part in this grand occasion.” She continues, “A quiet hush came over the room as their plane was announced, and then a large group of Color Guards, and a fife and drum core escorted them from the gateway. There was standing room only, as a proud home crowd applauded our local heroes! “
When asked what his favorite part of the experience was, 92 year -old Donald Gebhardt quickly responded “The whole thing!”
American Warrior is a non-profit organization, founded by former Norwich State Representative, Christopher Coutin, in 2007. When Coutin had the opportunity to visit the WW II Memorial, he came to the realization the most of the Veterans were unable to view it in person, either due to their age or high travel costs. In September 2007, he initiated the first Day of Honor, which consisted of a chartered flight to Washington DC, along with a full day of activities structured around the service memorials. To-date they have flown over 1,000 Veterans through this program, which is fully funded by donations. A complete medical staff accompanies the group, and each Veteran is personally escorted by a specially trained volunteer Guardian.