Don Roberts has made it his mission to get as many veterans as possible on board an Honor Flight to visit war memorials that honor their military service and other historic landmarks in the nation's capital.
He is working with a small group of volunteers, as part of the Veterans Honor Flight of North Dakota and Minnesota organization, to spread the word and raise funds so more vets, especially those from the northern Red River Valley, can participate.
"There are so many people who don't know about the Honor Flight," said Roberts, of Grand Forks. "Younger people have never heard of it."
As a U.S. Marine who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, Roberts went on an Honor Flight in May 2017, the program's 10th anniversary.
"It's an experience you never forget," he said.
It has fueled his commitment to promote the Honor Flights.
"I have the feeling that I need to do something for these vets," he said. "I had the opportunity to go on this flight, and I need others to know this too."
Money should not be a barrier, he said. All expenses, including meals, hotel accommodations and transportation, are covered and the vet's every need is attended to.
The vets receive jackets, hats, T-shirts and other memorabilia they can keep as mementos.
They also receive a biography book that documents the name and background-such as branch of service and years served-of each of their fellow travelers.
For example, on last fall's Honor Flight, "there was a 99-year-old nurse, a World War II vet," Roberts said. She was one of two women in the group of 95 veterans.
But it may be their connection-silent or otherwise-with other vets that is the most valuable and lasting benefit, he said.
Support with private funds
Private fundraising makes the Honor Flights possible; no federal funds are provided for this purpose, Roberts said.
"Every dollar has to be raised through donations," he said.
It costs about $1,100 to send one vet on an Honor Flight, he said. Donations are tax deductible.
"Donations of any size are appreciated," he said, noting that about $50,000 was raised in 2017.
Raising money for the Honor Flights "is one of the hardest jobs I ever had," Roberts said.
"But I come home, and I feel I need to do it again," he said.
Sponsors are needed for the Honor Flight program.
On each Honor Flight, the plane is entirely reserved for veterans and volunteers, including doctors, nurses and others who attend to health needs and help vets get around Washington, D.C.
"The volunteers do an awesome job for them," said Betty Roberts, Don's wife.
Since the nonprofit Honor Flight program has been organized, more than 1,200 veterans have participated, he said.
The flights usually occur twice a year, once each in the spring and fall, depending on funds available.
At the airport, the vets are sent off with band music and people holding signs with messages of thanks, Don Roberts said. In D.C., the greeting is often equally warm.
The next flight, which leaves Fargo on Sept. 30 and returns Oct. 1, is full-with nearly 100 veterans, including about a dozen from the Grand Forks area, he said.
There has only been two flights, about 10 years ago, that originated in Grand Forks.
Don Roberts is hoping that, next year, one will take off in Grand Forks, he said.
"We're trying to get Vietnam (veterans) signed up for next year," he said.
Top priority is given to veterans of World War II and the Korean War, as well as those who may be terminally ill.
Time is not on their side.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that veterans are dying each day at the rates of 362 for World War II vets, 400 for Korean vets and 390 for Vietnam vets.
Some people mistakenly think that only vets who had certain roles or served in certain branches of the military are eligible to participate in the Honor Flights, Roberts said.
All vets who served in 1959 and earlier are eligible to apply, he said.
Roberts meets some eligible vets, whom he encourages to sign up for the trip, and he hears comments such as "I don't deserve it," or "I didn't do much" in the service. That is frustrating, he said, because he holds an opposite view.
"They are hard-headed," he's concluded.
"The biggest thing is to get them signed up," said Betty Roberts.
Veterans can apply online or "they can sign up at the (American) Legion or vets club in their hometowns," Don Roberts said.
Members of a committee decide who can participate in an Honor Flight, he said.
He and Betty also are looking for more volunteers to spread the word about this opportunity and to help out with fundraising activities.
"You don't have to be a vet to raise money," he said, adding the goal is well worth the effort.
But some veterans they've met don't necessarily want to remember their military service, Betty Roberts said.
"They went back to their farms and homes, and they didn't share much, if anything, about their service," she said. "But after being on the flight, they opened up more with their families."
"And," Don added, "especially with the people who were on the flight with them."
Veterans can apply to go on the Honor Flight at: www.veteranshonorflightofndmn.org.
Honor Flight Fundraising Events
Aug. 28-Half Brothers Brewing Company, 17 N. Third St., Grand Forks 6-9 p.m. $1 from the sale of each beverage or burger will be donated to the Honor Flight.
Sept. 17-Pizza Ranch, 3750 32nd Ave. S., Grand Forks 5-9 p.m. UND Women's Volleyball Team members will be serving, AND 20 percent of sales, dine-in and carry-out. all tips will be donated; mention "Honor Flight" when ordering.
Oct. 27-American Legion Honor Flight Fun Night, 1009 Central Ave. N.W., East Grand Forks
5-9 p.m. Dinner, raffles, silent auction, bake sale and more. For more information, call Roberts at (701) 746-8261; send donations to: Don Roberts, 2450 27th Ave. S. Apt. 302, Grand Forks, ND 58201 (make checks out to: The Honor Flight), or go to: www.veteranshonorflightofndmn.org.