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Memorial visit a family affair

WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- When Army veteran Richard McKinley visited the World War II Memorial here for the first time June 24, the Air Force's top enlisted man -- his nephew -- was there to greet him.

WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- When Army veteran Richard McKinley visited the World War II Memorial here for the first time June 24, the Air Force's top enlisted man -- his nephew -- was there to greet him.

The Ohio resident was visibly moved by Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Rodney J. McKinley, his brother's son, taking time out of his Pentagon schedule to tour the memorial with him.

"I didn't expect to see him," said 84-year-old McKinley. "It's been a long time. This is such a surprise."

McKinley said he was delighted to visit his uncle.

"I haven't seen him in years, so being able to be here when he arrived is very meaningful for me," he said.

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McKinley traveled as a guest of the Honor Flight organization based in Springfield, Ohio, which brings veterans of World War II to see the memorial.

The former private first class enlisted in 1942, graduated basic training at Camp McCain, Miss., and attended advanced infantry training in Ireland. He fought in Western Europe under Army Gen. George S. Patton as a member of the 3rd Army and was injured crossing the Meusel River. He spent 14 months in hospitals in Europe and the U.S. prior to being discharged in 1945.

Retired Capt. Earl Morse, the founder and operations manager of Honor Flight, spent much of his military career in aerospace medicine. After retiring from the Air Force, he worked as a physician's assistant in a Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield.

He encountered many World War II veterans and, during a six-month period, asked each one if he had visited the memorial. None had.

"Not one ... for a variety of reasons; from family issues to money," Morse said. "I feared they would never see America's 'thank you' for their service. These are the most humble, stoic, appreciative and patriotic veterans who walk the face of this earth."

The captain, a private pilot, was inspired to start Honor Flight when he flew his father, a Vietnam veteran, to Washington to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

"Since there were two more seats in the back of the plane, I decided to invite two World War II veterans along for the trip," he said.

Upon returning home, he presented his experience and plans for more flights to the Aero Club at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

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"I had 11 pilots come forward to volunteer (immediately)," he said.

As he cemented the concept into reality, he came up with two basic rules: Travel is free for vets and no side trips are allowed so the focus remains on the memorial.

The first Honor Flight mission was in May 2005 when six planes ferried 12 veterans from Dayton, Ohio, to Manassas, Va. The next month, eight planes carried 16 veterans. The month after that, 20 went on 10 flights.

Morse said he remembers returning to Ohio after the first flight and being surprised at what he saw.

"There were easily 120 family members and supporters out there waving flags and welcoming them home," he said.

As word spread, demand quickly outstripped capability.

"We were flying up to 20 veterans a month, but were getting requests from 95," Morse said.

Honor Flight volunteers researched alternatives and discovered that many airlines flew nonstop from Dayton to Washington several times a day. They now focus on raising funds to pay for commercial transportation and maintain a Web site at www.honorflight.org .

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The organization includes chapters in 31 states, which have flown more than 9,000 veterans to Washington. Chapters east of the Mississippi River generally fly veterans to the memorial and return them home the same day.

"The greatest reward comes when a veteran is greeted by people who ask them for photos and autographs, and some to simply thank them," Morse said. "You know from participating that every veteran on that plane has had a personal experience where they know that they are revered and loved and appreciated by their country."

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