“The idea is real simple,” says Bill Dukes, a Columbia restaurateur who founded Honor Flight of S.C. “We want every veteran of that war to have an opportunity to see the World War II Memorial. And we pay for it. The memorial is something that belongs to them, and I know first-hand, that for the vast majority of those who served, being there is an incredibly powerful experience.”
Since its founding in 2008, Honor Flight of S.C. has collected enough donations to organize 11 chartered trips from Columbia to the nation’s capital, allowing more than a thousand World War II veterans the opportunity to make the trip. “We’ve been really fortunate to have so much community support, but it’s a never-ending job to make sure we can cover expenses,” said Dukes. The recent financial pledge announced by the group of electric cooperatives marks a milestone for the Honor Flight Program. It’s the first time a single organization has committed the resources to fund an entire trip from the state. The sponsored flight will depart from Columbia on April 11, 2012.
“We owe these men and women a debt that none of us can every repay,” says Mike Couick, president and CEO of The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. “For the family of more than 2,300 cooperative employees, this is the most satisfying way we can think of to say ‘thank you’ to an incredible generation of South Carolinians.”
For Dukes, the cooperative offer was the equivalent of a prayer answered. “It was an absolute blessing,” says Dukes. “The donation itself was something pretty amazing. But more than that, I really think it helps us reach a long-time goal that we’ve struggled with. We haven’t had much luck luring rural veterans on this trip.”
With a presence statewide, Couick says the network of electric cooperatives is uniquely qualified to spread the message to veterans. “Our local co-ops are so plugged in to their communities, we can put those resources to work and reach those who’ve never heard of Honor Flight.”
Local cooperative employees are already beginning to canvass their territories in search of veterans like Daniel Fendley who lives in the Oakway community near Westminster.
Fendley’s Army career began on the front lines of Europe before a mortar round injured his leg and dictated a transfer to the Military Police. For a brief time, he served as a personal guard to legendary Gen. George S. Patton.
“Patton, he was a very commanding person,” Fendley recalls. “I was around him a good bit. He’d see people get in a foxhole and tell them, ‘You can’t fight a war in a foxhole. Get up and move!’”
Now 85, Fendley is three years younger than the average World War II veteran, a statistic that carries significant weight with Bill Dukes.
“I read the obituaries every morning,” says Dukes. “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see a veteran who’s passed.” The Veterans Administrations estimates, on average, more than 600 World War II veterans die each day. Says Dukes, “No question, the window for this program is beginning to close. And that’s why I am so thrilled about the partnership with the co-ops. I think they’ll find the vets we haven’t been able to reach.”
The electric cooperatives and Honor Flight of S.C. have already launched a coordinated publicity effort to spread the message about this trip. Couick says this project has energized the cooperatives and unified the employees with a special sense of mission.
“We are running out of time to honor these men and women who didn’t just win the war; they also came back home and built modern-day South Carolina,” Couick says. “They deserve to know how much we appreciate them.”
First preference for this Honor Flight will be given to those veterans who are currently members of one of the state’s electric cooperatives, though any World War II veteran who has not made the trip is encouraged to apply. Applications for the April 11 flight are already being accepted. There is an online version available at www.scliving.org, or can be requested by email at HonorFlight@scliving.org. An application is available at Blue Ridge’s website www.blueridge.coop. Printed applications will also be available in the January edition of South Carolina Living Magazine, the largest circulation magazine in the state.