Honored: U.P. Honor Flight organizers dedicated to veterans

ESCANABA – Barb Van Rooy and Paula Waeghe have been a driving force in the Upper Peninsula Honor Flight, which takes veterans from across the U.P. to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials erected in their honor. Because of Van Rooy and Waeghe’s dedication to honoring veterans, they have been selected as the Daily Press Volunteers of the Month.

Honor Flights across the country take veterans – particularly World War II veterans, who have may have little time left to see their memorials – to Washington, D.C. at no cost to them.

With the help of local businesses, organizations, and private donations, the U.P. Honor Flight has taken 327 veterans to Washington, D.C. in three flights. A fourth flight is planned for this spring.

Van Rooy’s interest in the Honor Flight program stemmed from her own experience taking her father, a World War II veteran, to Washington D.C. to see the World War II Memorial. It was while visiting the memorial that she first encountered an Honor Flight group.

“I’m always so nosy about everything. I’m wondering what all these older men are with matching t-shirts on, so I had to go over there and talk to them,” said Van Rooy.

After becoming interested in the Honor Flight program, which has flown thousands of veterans from regional hubs all across the country, Van Rooy began volunteering with the hub in Appleton, Wis.

“Then one day I said, ‘What the heck am I doing here? I’ve got all these veterans in the U.P.'” said Van Rooy.

With each honor flight costing roughly $85,000, the challenge of creating a regional hub for the Upper Peninsula was daunting. Nevertheless, Van Rooy began meeting with American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts sharing her plan.

“Everybody thought it was a nice idea, but I was crazy. I’d never raise that kind of money,” said Van Rooy.

Word of the Honor Flight began to spread, drawing the attention and support of businesses, organizations, and individuals. One individual, Paula Waeghe, had already been personally touched by the Honor Flight and wanted to get involved.

When Waeghe’s father, a veteran who lives in Wausau, Wis., first told Waeghe that he had made the decision to go on an Honor Flight Waeghe was in disbelief.

“He said, ‘I’m going to fill out this application. I’m going to go to Washington, D.C. for a day,'” explained Waeghe. “I’m going, ‘Man, his hearing aids are not working because nobody goes there for the day.'”

Waeghe went to Wausau to see her father come from the trip. She met his guardian – an assigned escort for the trip – and spent time viewing photos from her father’s journey.

The experience stuck with Waeghe, and after reading an article about Van Rooy’s work creating a U.P. hub, she went to an Honor Flight meeting, and the rest is history.

“I just thought, OK, maybe I’d be a guardian. I never envisioned myself as going through all the fundraising and being this being a part of it but I am certainly glad that I did,” said Waeghe.

Despite not knowing each other before the U.P. Honor Flight took shape, Van Rooy and Waeghe have become a team. Van Rooy focuses mainly on the logistical challenges of each trip, and Waeghe assists with fundraising, public speaking, and other challenges that arise during an Honor Flight.

Waeghe also helps out as a guardian – usually for people she has never met.

“They become like a friend to you in that …12 hours we’re together that day, a bond is made there, and a lot of people stay in contact with their veterans afterwards. I have, and I know others,” she said.

When Van Rooy first began working towards the creation of a U.P. Honor Flight hub, she only expected to bring a few veterans to visit their memorials. She had no idea the number of lives that would be changed by the service.

“It’s really a lot different than I thought it was going to be. I thought we were going to take them and that was going to be that. I didn’t understand the impact that it was going to have on families and guardians,” said Van Rooy.

“It’s more than just seeing the memorial. It’s what it does for the veterans and how they finally feel appreciated, and that what they did was important, and it’s closure for so many of them too,” she added.

Waeghe echoed the sentiment and stressed the importance of the coming home ceremonies where friends, family, and strangers come to honor the returning veterans.

“I don’t get teary eyed all day, but when I come home, even though I don’t know that person very well, that welcoming home, it just brings tears to my eyes,” said Waeghe. “The honor – they just can’t believe it. They didn’t really have that when they came home from the war.”