Robert Barbee has a message for all World War II veterans.
Sign up soon for a trip to Washington D.C., on an "Honor Flight."
"You owe it to yourself," he said.
Barbee was part of an Honor Flight contingent that flew out of Seattle on May 25. He describes the three-day tour as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
While he was required to make his way to and from Seattle, the rest of the tab was picked up by private donors.
"No government dollars are spent on this," Barbee noted.
First stop, Baltimore, Md., where he and approximately two dozen of his fellow veterans were welcomed in grand style at the Hilton Hotel, including a great meal that evening.
The next morning the entire group was bused into D.C., visiting first the World War II Memorial.
"That's the 'honor' part of the trip," Barbee said.
But that was just the beginning of a long, enjoyable day.
After leaving the memorial, the veterans were bused to the Lincoln Memorial where they also visited the Vietnam and Korean War memorials. At Arlington National Cemetery they watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown.
Before leaving the national cemetery they visited the Air Force Memorial and the Iwo Jima Memorial.
And then they drove downtown to visit the Navy Memorial.
They enjoyed a big dinner at the Golden Corral before returning to the Hilton where an epic bull session broke out in the lobby.
"We fought the war all over again," he laughed. "And you know, we won again."
The next morning the group was bused back to the airport and flown home to Seattle.
Barbee said he first heard about "Honor Flight" through the grapevine — from a fellow veteran down in Oregon.
He said the program had lost some steam for a while, but in the past year has been reorganized, expanded and is better than ever.
The first step: go to www.honorflight.org and register.
Acceptance isn't immediate. Some have been on the waiting list three years or more, Barbee said.
But the program currently provides a priority for World War II veterans, plus other veterans who are suffering from a terminal disease.
Because the older veterans and those who are ill very often require assistance, each veteran is required to be accompanied by a guardian who must pay $400 for flight, hotel and meals.
Barbee was accompanied by his granddaughter, Amy.
He's immensely grateful to the many who provided the flight and all of the attendant care.
Barbee said the folks at Southwest Airlines, a major program sponsor, "took care of us very royally. They were very knowledgeable and knew exactly what to do."
When the veterans arrived in Baltimore they were met by a large contingent of volunteers. "It was fantastic. They had wheelchairs waiting for us and just wheeled us right through."
Barbee said the World War II Memorial was the highlight of the trip. "It was a long fight to get this memorial built," he said. He praised Sen. Bob Dole, who played a big role in securing financing for the memorial's construction.
"The entire (trip) is worth doing," he said. But at the memorial, "You can't walk five feet without someone thanking you."
He said the memorial serves a second useful purpose: educating younger Americans. Barbee said he's sometimes spoken to high school students who can't identify the combatants in World War II. "They ask who fought in the war," he said. "And they ask who won."
Barbee saw a good deal of the war. In October 1940, when he turned 16, Barbee's father signed him up for the U.S. Merchant Marine. He soon found himself working in Asia. In time he returned to the states, finished high school and tried to sign up for the service. "I was only 17. They wouldn’t have me. When I became 18, they still wouldn’t have me because I had Merchant Marine papers. So I shipped out as a Merchant Seaman."
Barbee spent the balance of the war on Merchant ships, serving in the North Atlantic, North Africa, the Southwest Pacific and the Aleutian Islands.
For more on Honor Flight, see www.honorflight.org.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.