American Warrior reaches goal of flying 1,000 WWII veterans to national memorial

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By Robin Lee Michel,
For The Airport News

American Warriors at Bradley. (Photo by Paul Bonneau)

American Warriors at Bradley. (Photo by Paul Bonneau)

In the course of seven years, the dreams of 1,000 World War II veterans have been fulfilled thanks to American Warrior, a nonprofit organization based in Norwich. On April 26, 78 WWII veterans and 20 Korean War veterans made the day trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the National World War II Memorial and other memorials established in their honor.
This most recent trip brought the total to the goal set in 2006 by Connecticut resident Christopher D. , who founded American Warrior. That was the year that he and his wife, Nergina, visited the World War II memorial and noticed there were few veterans of that era present. His own grandfather and six great-uncles never saw the site.
Coutu, who was 30 at the time, did not want the surviving servicemen and women to never have the opportunity to visit the memorial, whatever the circumstances. He was determined that his last surviving family member who served, his uncle Edward Coutu, would see the memorial. Although Edward Coutu was in a long-term care facility, using a wheelchair, the young man vowed to get him to Washington.
“My vision started off with the idea that we could send a few WWII veterans. I wanted to honor them and show that we all can make a difference,” said Chris Coutu,
Coutu himself is a veteran, having served in the U.S. Air , and is still an officer in the Army National Guard. Founding American Warrior and with community support and his own savings, the first Day of Honor was held Sept. 15, 2007, with 100 WWII veterans and 49 guardians — escorts — taking the excursion, his uncle among them.
“Our original goal was to send 1,000 WWII veterans to visit their memorial and we surpassed that with our [2014] trip,” said Sue Ponder, treasurer of the American Warrior board of directors, data manager and primary logistics coordinator.
Day of Honor trips are funded by donations and American Warrior gladly accepts contributions from anyone except the veterans themselves. “We believe that these veterans have given enough,” Coutu said. Guardians, who are family members, friends, caregivers or volunteers, pay $300.
This year, the veterans — whose average age was 87 — were from 53 Connecticut towns, Rhode Island, New York and Massachusetts. The oldest traveler was 99 and the youngest was 74. The group included three female WWII veterans, including a Navy nurse. Branches of service represented were Air National Guard, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Navy, Naval Air and Navy Armed Guard.
A total of 47 guardians and 35 Navy volunteers accompanied the veterans, which included more than 60 people in wheelchairs. One guardian, Adrian Hendrickson, has traveled on all 10 trips. Among them was Coutu, who since he founded American Warrior served from 2009 to 2013 as state representative of the 47th House District, representing Canterbury, Sprague, Scotland .and part of Norwich.
The day began with the travelers gathering at 7:30 a.m. at Bradley International Airport, where they boarded a chartered U.S. Airways flight, an Airbus 320, and were honored with a water cannon salute. Upon arrival at Reagan National Airport, the plane taxied through a second water cannon salute and was greeted by hundreds of supporters as an orchestra performed patriotic music. The buses were accompanied by a motorcycle escort to the WWII Memorial and a wreath was laid at the Connecticut pillar in honor of those men and women who never made the journey. Lunch followed, and the day continued with visits to the Korean, Navy, Iwo Jima and Air Force monuments.
“It is a 14-hour day for these great warriors, but even when they arrive at Bradley and march to the homecoming of 300-plus people waiting to welcome them home, they are wide awake and loving every minute of it,” Ponder said.
As time goes on, the numbers of Korean veterans wishing to participate are increasing. American Warrior anticipates transitioning the focus of the trips to be on the Korean vets as the numbers of WWII veterans dwindle. Each veteran is allowed to go once.
Presently there are 22 WWII veterans on the list for April 2015. It takes at least six months of planning to contact and organize the veterans and guardians. For this year’s trip, there were originally 103 WWII veterans on the list, but ultimately only 78 participated. The roster was changing up to the final week.
American Warrior is an all-volunteer organization, with 99.9 percent of all the money raised going to support the Day of Honor. Corporate sponsors of the 2014 trip included Five Star supermarkets (ShopRite and PriceRite), Pfizer Employee Grant Match, Cablevision, Northeast Utilities, Naugatuck Bank Foundation, Wal-Mart, Dime Bank and the A&E TV network.
An estimated 2,000 small donations were made. Contributors and fundraisers included Connecticut Town and City Clerks, Enfield Cost of Freedom Walk, Spc. Wil Perez Jr. Golf Classic, Norwich Chapter 3636 of AARP, Red Hat Society, Odd Fellows, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, businesses, individuals, schools, civic organizations and many others. Photographer Paul Bonneau donated his time in documenting the day.
Day of Honor is a huge undertaking, Ponder said. “if it were not for the help and coordination of everyone at Bradley, U.S. Air and TSA [Transportation Security Administration], the day of the trip would not be such a smoothly run event. They are extraordinary and all should be applauded from the top down,” Ponder said.
For the second consecutive year, the Day of Honor continued at a reunion event. On June 21, veterans, guardians and family members gathered at CL&P to watch a video about the trip and reminisce. At the 2013 event, two men who had been best buddies during the war were reunited, Ponder said.
The American Warrior experience has prompted some veterans to share their personal memories for the first time, 60 years after they occurred. “The stories are amazing,” she said.
American Warrior has expanded its mission by establishing Operation Freedom Legacy, Operation Make a Difference and Operation Welcome Home, which promote patriotism, volunteering, sacrifice and freedom. Thousands of schoolchildren have learned about these values through visits to classrooms and veterans have been honored by their communities with parades and ceremonies.
“We [have] succeeded by motivating thousands of students and volunteers to honor these heroes, before it was too late,” Coutu said.
“My only regret is not motivating even more supporters to help us fly another 1,000,” Coutu said. “Unfortunately, many of my WWII friends (all eight family members) are gone. I like to believe their final days were a bit more special because of our efforts.”

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