By Tony Hooker
Mary Coventry didn’t serve on active duty or in the reserves, but that fact has never slowed her from showing her dedication to those who did. I recently caught up with the Decatur native, now living in Champaign, about her roles with the Honor Flight Network, an organization formed in 2005 by Jeff Miller and Earl Morse with a mission of honoring our nation’s veterans by bringing them to Washington, DC to visit the memorials and monuments dedicated to their service and sacrifice. We talked about that, her presentation at the Korner Beehive on December 15, her father’s service and how it served as a catalyst for her involvement, her role as a nurse practitioner, and much more.
What is your involvement with veterans?
I am the Secretary, on the executive board, for the Honor Flight Network’s Land of Lincoln Hub. I’ve been a guardian 11 times. I’ll have my 12th one next April or whenever the next flight occurs.
Can you explain that? I’m not sure what a guardian is.
It’s a person who goes with the veteran. Helps him fill out his papers and evaluates him to see what his needs are. Does he need a wheelchair or oxygen, that kind of thing. We make sure that the veteran has transportation, or we can provide transportation, to the airport. We help them arrange the overnight stay if they need it before their flight. A guardian makes sure they get to the airport on time and makes sure that they are at the busses when they need to be there. Behind the scenes, they reach out to a family member to make sure that their family and friends provide plenty of letters for the mail bag when they get back home. When they get back, there’s a welcome home ceremony and the guardian carries all of their things. We’re kind of with them from the minute they leave their home until they get into whatever transportation they’ve arranged to get back to their residence. The first time I went as a guardian, I was with my dad, and when I moved here to Champaign, the guy who mowed my yard was an Air Force veteran, and his daughter and I tried to talk him into doing it. He finally said he would do it, but only if I went with. I told him I would, just to make sure he went! I enjoyed it even more than I did the first time. It’s not the enjoyment of the trip, but seeing that veteran enjoy the camaraderie of the other veterans, to feel appreciated, because the WWII and Korean war guys, when they came home it was “Ok, good job. Get back to work.” And you know what we’ve done to the Vietnam guys. This gives them a chance to visit with other veterans and feel appreciated.
Are the Guardians flights free?
The Guardians pay their own way, but that person helps them (the veteran) appreciate what they’re seeing and to make sure that they’re not left behind.
How did the honor flight program begin?
It started out with Earl Morse who was a P.A. and a Captain in the Air Force and with the VA in Ohio. The WWII memorial had just been completed, and he wanted all of his veterans to go out there and feel the appreciation and see the memorial built in their honor. They couldn’t go because it would be a four-day trip and some couldn’t afford it and others’ health wasn’t that good, so it wasn’t really feasible. He arranged for himself and 11 other pilots to take twelve veterans on a one-day trip, helping them get on and off the plane and made sure they got back safely. Everything just sort of snowballed from there. We have a national honor flight, and then we have all these hubs underneath the national office.
How about you? Where did you grow up?
Decatur, Illinois, and then I moved to Champaign four years ago. My family’s here.
Did you serve?
No, I didn’t. My dad said that was no place for a woman! <laughs> I wanted to be a WAC or a Wave, but my dad wouldn’t hear of it. I guess that’s why I’ve felt that I needed to do something to pay these guys back. This was my way of saying thank you to them.
What’s your chosen career?
I’m an Adult Nurse Practitioner. Right now, I’m working with the CU department of Public Health, administering vaccinations.
What’s your presentation at the Korner Beehive going to be about?
I think it’s going to be one of our usual presentations. I usually honor the veterans by having them standing up and then thank them for their service, and their role in guaranteeing our freedoms as a country. Then, I’ll tell them about the flight, which will take them to Washington, DC for the day. They usually come over the night before and they get a free dinner from the VFW. I have to say that the meal is free to the veteran, but the guardians and guests pay for their own. The veteran only pays for his or her hotel room and gas to get to Springfield. It’s (the trip to Washington, DC) is a full day with three meals and air-conditioned tour buses. We sometimes have a full police escort, which helps cut down on our travel time. We have to be at Springfield airport at 4:15 a.m., and then we have coffee and donuts and then once we arrive, we stop somewhere for lunch. If we have a police escort, we can go to the Navy memorial, but we go to the WWII memorial and that’s where we take our big group photograph. Then they get back on the bus and go to the Korean War and Vietnam memorials, along with the Lincoln memorial. Then we get back on the bus and go to the National Air and Space museum, in Chantilly, VA. Then we go to the Arlington Cemetery and see the Marine and Air Force memorials and the changing of the guard. The guards are like robots. They can’t speak or salute, but when they are in front of the veterans, they will scuff or drag their heel and that’s their way of saying thank you, it’s a really powerful moment. After that, we go back to the airport. We charter our planes, so they’re all gassed up with a fresh crew and ready to go. Our plane usually gets back to Springfield around 9 or 9:30. We have a mail call, and we try to pack the airport for a welcome home greeting. We’re trying to figure out how to do it with social distancing, because it would be packed, shoulder to shoulder with the beauty queen or the governor leading the welcome. There would be guys dressed in their uniforms and playing bagpipes. It’s really quite impressive. That’s the welcome home they didn’t get. We are a 501 C 3 organization. We have no federal or local funding. It’s all through memorials, donations or fundraisers. Everything we do is run solely by volunteers. I buy my own shirts and pay for my own gas. We’re dedicated to this. We don’t have an office. One cent of every dollar will go to printing or buying paper. Every bus has a medical person who’s always a guardian. We have oxygen or wheelchairs available. We always have water and snacks available throughout the day, so no one gets hypoglycemic. I’ll also talk about where we came from as an organization, like I talked about earlier. We hope to do seven flights this year.
It makes an impact on the participants, doesn’t it?
These guys gave up years of their lives. How many people would give up years of their life today, whether was it was war time or not. Some who volunteered didn’t come back. Some came back missing an arm or a leg. A lot of them came back with PTSD. My dad was a marine in the Pacific in Peleliu and Okinawa, and those were two of the bloodiest battles they had over there. My dad fought so hard and had battle fatigue, and when I read it in the paper, I was so proud of him. Then, as a nurse practitioner, I read it again and thought “oh, no!”. It affected him forever. There are so many, especially the Viet Nam guys, who have taken this flight and come back saying “ I don’t have this anger anymore that the country didn’t appreciate me.”
Do you feel that stories like that validate all that you’ve done for honor flight?
Yes. They gave so much and that’s why I do this. People that I care about want me to be my guardian, and that’s my way of thanking at least that one person. One of my big things is to find WWII and Korean War veterans who deserve to take this flight. They’re hiding out, right here in Villa Grove and we have to find them! <laughs> We also have a program called the flightless honor flight for those who cannot or will not fly. We have a small ceremony and a video, and we try to assimilate what they would have seen if they had gone on the flight.
Is there anything you would like to add?
This whole day gives these veterans one of the best days of their lives, and I’m hoping that someone will contact me about either being a guardian or about taking the flight.