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Honor Flight San Diego was started 12 years ago to say “thank you” to World War II veterans by taking them on all-expenses-paid trips to Washington, D.C., to see the various monuments.

Now, the relentless passage of time has exhausted the waiting list of those willing and able to make the journey.

Only nine are on the passenger list for this weekend’s charter flight to the nation’s capital. Honor Flight said this is likely the last trip with World War II vets in any kind of numbers. Seventy-three Korean War vets will be on board, too, but their ranks are also dwindling.

The focus for Honor Flight’s next trip will shift to Vietnam War veterans, said Holly Shaffner, director of public relations for the non-profit group.

Since 2010, Honor Flight San Diego has ferried almost 1,500 vets, making it one of the busiest of the 130 chapters spread around the country. It typically does two weekend-long trips each year, one in the spring and one in the fall.

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The program started in Ohio in 2005 to take vets to see the World War II Memorial, which had opened the year before. Many vets had helped fund its construction with donations. The memorial has 4,048 gold stars, each one representing approximately 100 service members killed in the war.

While in D.C., the vets also make stops at the Lincoln Memorial, Marine and Air Force memorials, the National Museum of the Navy, and Arlington National Cemetery.

Usually the trips are about much more than sightseeing. Everywhere they go, the vets are treated like heroes, applauded in airports and approached by strangers who want to shake their hands or take photos with them. Some vets say it is the first time they’ve been thanked for what they did back then.

The trips also become an opportunity for reflection and healing. Surrounded by others who saw and did the same things in combat, many of the vets open up for the first time and talk about their experiences. Tears fall.

Over the years, as the population of World War II vets has dwindled — of the 16 million Americans who served, fewer than 250,000 are alive — the flights got extended to Korean War survivors.

Shaffner said Honor Flight had a waiting list of about 150 World War II and Korean War vets when organizers started to put together the passenger list for this weekend’s trip. Some of the vets had died. Others were no longer physically able, or had other plans.

They wound up with 84 vets. That includes two Vietnam War vets who are terminally ill and might not have another chance to take a flight, she said.

The group was scheduled to leave early Friday morning and return Sunday to San Diego International Airport at 1:40 p.m. A homecoming ceremony at the Terminal 2 baggage claim area — open to the public — is expected to draw about 800 people, Shaffner said.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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