The Flight of Honor is a popular program that takes veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the various memorial sites in honor of their service, but as veterans age and become unable to make the trip, a new service has emerged.
Honor Flights Cleveland, in partnership with the local NBC affiliate WKYC, Eventworks 4D and with funding from Parker Hannifin and the Krups Family WWII Foundation at Stokes VA Medical Center, allows veterans an immersive and emotional virtual reality experience without leaving the ground.
Joe Benedict, president of Honor Flight Cleveland, said the virtual experience was designed to mimic reality. For veterans physically unable to make an honor flight, his organization brings the trip to them.
"We give them their shirts, their hats, everything that everybody gets going on the flight, and, just like these guys today, it's like we were at the airport leaving for Washington," Benedict said.
Butch Nails served two tours in Vietnam. The Marine Corps veteran is as tough as nails, so it was appropriate that he would take the lead into a virtual reality visit to the memorials of Washington, D.C.
After being fitted with the headset, he's immersed in the sights and sounds of a video that gives him a 360-degree view that he would get as if he were actually there.
"It shows you a lot, but it would be better being there," Nails said before calling the experience "wonderful" for those who can't make the trip.
James Thomas served in the Army during peacetime just after World War II. He was amazed at the crowds around him during his virtual visit.
"Oh my goodness, that is beautiful. (There are) a lot of veterans there," he said. "I don't think you can do any better than that. It makes me cry. It takes your breath away."
George Barnovsky, an Army combat veteran of the Korean conflict, paid a virtual visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. When Taps was played, his emotions made clear how real the experience could be.
"It brings back too many memories," he said.
Honor Flights Cleveland allows veterans to make the virtual visits together, knowing it's the camaraderie that helps many deal with what they may have thought they left behind
"It's nice of them to do something like this," Barnovsky said. "It's real and shows what you're missing if you can't make it."
Similar virtual honor flights are available in other parts of the country through the organization Honor Everywhere.