Living near military installations, whether that be on the peninsula near Naval Base Kitsap or in Pierce County near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, when you see active-duty service members and those who have recently separated from the service, you can sometimes see visible indicators of their ties to the military.
It might be a T-shirt identifying the unit they served with, a distinct tattoo on their arm or leg marking their deployment or allegiance to a certain branch or even a bumper sticker on their car. But you likely won’t see any of those indicators on World War II veterans.
Such is the case with The Gateway’s own contributing reporter, Hugh McMillan.
I had no idea of Hugh’s patriotic and heroic background when I first took over as editor. All I saw initially was an 88-year-old senior who loved his community, loved to shine the spotlight on area students and always loved to strike up a conversation with anyone he crossed paths with. As I got to know Hugh, I realized he doesn’t like to talk himself up; he’s a humble guy.
But during a Veterans Day ceremony at Gig Harbor High School in November, students there took it upon themselves to turn the tables on Hugh and put the focus on him. Earlier that month, the student body heard a presentation from Gig Harbor resident Kathy Belise, a board member of the Puget Sound Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. The organization transports WW II veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials.
“They had been talking about it, and they wanted to fund (Hugh),” Belise said.
Usually, Belise said, the fundraising comes from corporations. But periodically this kind of thing happens, she said.
And those plans tend to come together quickly because WWII veterans are passing away at a pace of nearly 800 per day nationwide, Belise said.
So a plan was put in motion to raise money at the assembly to send Hugh back to D.C. Students, teachers and everyone in attendance raised $1,800 for Hugh — nearly double what it takes to put a veteran on the flight.
“Kids just started emptying their pockets (at the assembly),” said Bunky Janovich, who collected the donations at the high school. “Our kids are very generous. They love Hugh.”
And those kids in high school now likely talked to Hugh in one form or another when they were in elementary school or junior high. In less than one hour, everyone had showed their appreciation.
“We were totally blown away with how much we raised,” Janovich said. “We were just so excited.”
Hugh was quite touched, and I might add that he still didn’t tell me about what the school did for him until several weeks later. Again, he didn’t want it to be about him.
Hugh departed on his Honor Flight — “camera in hand,” as he likes to say — last week and returned Monday. He had group of Gig Harbor High students, parents and friends waiting to welcome him home at Sea-Tac Airport when he returned.
“He didn’t know they were waiting for him,” Janovich said. “His eyes just lit up.”
It was a fitting welcome for a guy whose community adores him.
(Editor’s note: Evergreen and Vaughn elementaries also donated funds to make Hugh’s Honor Flight happen.)