Honor Flight: Tacoma woman helps veterans get hero’s welcome in Washington, D.C.

Irving Maule and Kelly Chambers in the garden behind Maule's Lakewood home, August 5. Chambers accompanied WW2 veteran Maule on a trip to Washington, D.C., as a guardian with Puget Sound Honor Flights.
Irving Maule and Kelly Chambers in the garden behind Maule's Lakewood home, August 5. Chambers accompanied WW2 veteran Maule on a trip to Washington, D.C., as a guardian with Puget Sound Honor Flights. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Kelly Chambers knows that, for World War II veterans, the clock is ticking.

“The average World War II vet is 93, and there are fewer and fewer every day,” the Tacoma woman said. “I’d rather spend time with them now than read about them later.”

Her father, a Vietnam War veteran, was out of the military by the time she was born in 1975. It wasn’t until after he died when she was in her teens that Chambers, now 40, saw photographs of her father from his time in Vietnam and of his father, who was also in the military.

That made her realize how his military past and his family had been a large part of his identity.

She said this connection to veterans, plus her job as a franchise owner of the assisted-living service Visiting Angels in Tacoma and her passion for history come together in her work for the Honor Flight Network.

The Ohio-based nonprofit seeks to provide honor and closure for military veterans by flying them to Washington, D.C., to see the memorials that honor their service in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

World War II veterans get priority when applying for a flight, but all veterans can participate.

“Everything came together — my family experience with my dad, my professional experience with caring for people and just my hobbies and what I like,” Chambers said.

“In a way, I feel like doing something to honor him,” she said of her father, whom she calls a “proud veteran.”

Since starting to work with Honor Flight, Chambers has gone on three trips as a guardian for the veterans, paying for her tickets herself.

Chambers helps get veterans from one location to the next, pushing their wheelchairs, if necessary, or offering aid if someone is hurt during a trip.

Her job, she said, is basically “keeping an eye out for their safety,” as the fast-paced, three-day trips can be strenuous for some veterans.

On the positive side, she especially enjoys getting to point out landmarks and take photos of the veterans by the monuments.

“I feel like a mini tour guide when I’m in town there,” said Chambers, who interned in Washington, D.C., twice during college and is well-acquainted with the area.

Tom Storey, a 96-year-old World War II veteran, made an Honor Flight in April with Chambers as his guardian.

The trip was cathartic, he said.

“Most of the people that serve never get recognition or never get a chance to express themselves,” said Storey, who lives in SeaTac. “An experience like that is hard to really put in words sometimes, and like I say, when you bring back memories of fallen friends … it’s overwhelming.”

Irving Maule, a 93-year-old World War II veteran, flew with Chambers to Washington, D.C., in May. Many veterans might not have had a chance make the trip without the Honor Flights, he said.

“A lot of (veterans) have never been to Washington,” the Lakewood man said. “I went to Washington long before any of the memorials were built, so it was really changed for me.”

After landing in Seattle after his flight, Storey approached Chambers to show his appreciation.

“He said, ‘Kelly, your dad would be so proud of you, and I love you,’ ” Chambers recalled. “In a way, it felt like a surrogate father, like he understood why I was doing this.”

She’s kept in contact with the two veterans since their flights, and said she’s grateful for the chance to help them and other veterans get a “thank you” for their sacrifices.

After listening to Chambers talk about Honor Flight at an annual national conference, Visiting Angels franchise owners donated $5,000 to pay for plane tickets and accommodations for future flights.

For Chambers, the need for Honor Flight comes from its urgency. She hopes that through the program World War II veterans will receive recognition for their service while they’re alive.

“They’re great American heroes and, it’s a privilege to get to spend time with them,” she said. “They’re living history.”

Honor Flights

How to apply: Honor Flights are free for veterans, who must fill out an application — available online — to be considered for a flight. All veterans can apply; World War II veterans get priority.

To be a guardian:Anyone wanting to be a guardian (including a veteran’s family members) must submit an application — available online.

Next trips: The next two flights will leave from Sea-Tac Airport on Sept. 25 and Oct. 15. Both still have space, but organizers urge veterans who want to make the trip to sign up as soon as possible. If the fall flights fill up, information from veterans who have submitted an application will be kept for a spring flight.

Contacting Honor Flight: Information about Honor Flight in the Puget Sound area, including applications for a flight or to be a guardian, can be found at bit.ly/2b9u8H2 or by calling 253-303-1130.