It takes a lot to impress Ed Bailey. Last Saturday, the Hudson Valley Honor Flight did just that.
Bailey worked for six decades as an Associated Press photographer traveling the world and photographing conflicts, celebrations and everything in between. He served in the U.S. Army for five years during the Korean conflict as well as in the Navy Reserves for 17 more. He covered wars in Beirut and the Gulf War. He has seen much.
On Sat., Oct. 12, Bailey was one of 83 veterans – and one of 13 from the Town of Warwick - chosen to be part of the 24th Hudson Valley Honor flight. The group arrived at Stewart Airport in the early morning hours accompanied by a motorcycle escort of 250 riders. The welcome they received for their sendoff was memorable.
“The crowd to see us off was just incredible,” said Bailey, 84, a resident of Greenwood Lake and a member of the Greenwood Lake American Legion. “Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, all waving American flags. An absolutely incredible group.”
Bailey described the scene including the playing armed service songs for each branch of the military, setting the tone for the day.
They boarded an American Airlines airbus and arrived in Washington, D.C., just 45 minutes later. Again, they were greeted by hundreds of strangers who were there simply to show their gratitude. Even those who were making their way through the busy Reagan Airport on this Saturday morning stopped to clap and offer thanks.
“People just stopped and clapped. They shook our hands and said ‘thank you for your service,’” said Bailey. “There were a couple hundred people, old and young. It was overwhelming.”
And the day was just beginning. The veterans, each accompanied by their volunteer guardians, visited the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown.
To this seasoned vet who has seen it all in his 60 years of covering the world, Saturday was more than memorable.
“The highlight for me was the overwhelming response from people we didn’t know,” said Bailey. “This was outstanding.”
A guardian’s view
Mary Francht heard from her dad about his time in the army during World War II. He was stationed in Okinawa. He, like Ed Bailey, was a cameraman for the army.
Francht took care of her dad during his final days. She loved his stories and was grateful that he shared them with her. She admired his patriotism. A member of the Greenwood Lake American Legion Womens Auxiliary, she said he inspired her to give back.
She had heard about the Hudson Valley Honor Flight and decided she would volunteer as a guardian. For each veteran, a guardian is chosen to accompany. The guardian is apprised of any special needs for their vet. Francht was chosen to be Bailey’s guardian. She stayed by his side through the day, pushing his wheelchair through the nation’s capital on Saturday.
Francht has been at send-off services for the Hudson Valley Honor Flight before but this was her first time as a guardian.
“I was there to honor Ed and his brothers he served with,” said Francht. “Next to getting married and having my children, this was the best experience of my life. I loved it. Seeing Ed smile was the highlight. There is so much compassion, loyalty, service. It was an honor for me.”
Inspired with every trip
Marianne Schmidt has been on every Hudson Valley Honor Flight since its inception in 2012. A registered nurse, Schmidt is the medical and safety coordinator for the flight. She speaks with every vet before every flight, working out all possible safety issues.
As the World War II veteran population dwindles, there are more Vietnam veterans on the list, more than 350 currently.
“Most of the veterans have been to D.C. to the monuments before. But it’s different on the honor flight,” said Schmidt. “Many are overwhelmed by the whole experience.”
The Vietnam veterans never received a welcome home and that’s what they hear most often. Those who served in World War II and Korea usually hear “Thank you for your service.” The Vietnam vets usually get “Welcome Home,” she said.
With 24 flights under her belt, which is three to four each year, what makes it special for Schmidt?
“It’s the human stories you hear. Some of these veterans have lived more than 90 years and they’ll tell me this is the best day of their life. Some are physically frail and view everything from a wheelchair yet they struggle – and succeed – to get up when they hear Taps.”
“You can’t go to Arlington National Cemetery or the Vietnam Memorial and not be struck by the patriotism and the honor they so deserve, especially those who served in Vietnam,” she continued.
Some veterans have shared harrowing stories with her of their time overseas. Some say they don’t deserve this honor because they didn’t see combat.
One Vietnam veteran told her a story of how he was part of a rescue team in the jungle. After their mission, three men were left and they couldn’t go back in and rescue them. That stayed with him his entire life. At the Vietnam Memorial, he took rubbings of those three men’s names.
“It’s the personal stories that are most touching.”
For more information about Hudson Valley Honor Flight, to donate or to volunteer, go to their Facebook page.
Editor's note: Ed Bailey is a longtime photographer for Straus newspapers; The Warwick Advertiser, The Chronicle and The Photo-News.