Don Meats isn’t a military veteran, but few have more passion for veterans and what they sacrificed for family, friends and country.
Thursday he apprised Iola Rotarians of the Southern Coffey County schools honor flights, which will have taken 288 veterans to Washington, D.C. on 12 flights after one scheduled April 12-13.
Honor flights are a special service of SCC. Several Iolans participated in one for World War II vets about 10 years ago and many others occur nationwide — but having so many from such a small town as Le Roy is astonishing.
The flights aren’t just for WWII vets, but include those who served during Korea and Vietnam as well. Having served in combat is not a requirement.
A feature is that SCC students are paired with veterans, which gives them insight into the lives of their companions and what they might have experienced during conflict.
“The students learn a lot from going and it is so meaningful to the veterans, it’s not unusual to see tears in their eyes,” when they view monuments, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that lists more than 58,000 names of those killed, Meats said.
The journey includes 24 students plus 24 veterans, a doctor and other supporters and consumes two days, which permits the veterans to experience much of what is dedicated to them — the Memorial, sculpted figures that appear as if they were on a patrol; the huge WWII Memorial; the National Cemetery and touching changing of guards, who walk near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier 24 hours a day, regardless of weather conditions.
Honor flights started after the World War II Memorial — Kansas Senator Bob Dole was a supporter and fundraiser from day one — was completed in 2004. The network was founded by a physician assistant and retired Air Force captain, whose interest in taking WWII vets to see their monument was piqued by many being his patients, and not having been to Washington. He arranged to take 12 in six small airplanes the first year, and the event was born.
Fundraising, the lion’s share of which falls to Le Roy Masons, is a yearlong process.
A second flight this year — the 13th — is planned for November, with Nov. 11, Veterans Day, being one the group will be in Washington. “That makes the trip even a little more meaningful,” Meats said.
Many businesses and individuals help financially, or provide prizes for the raffle: Neosho Lodge is licensed by the Kansas Gaming Commission, which means ticket purchases are tax-deductible.
In the current raffle $9,000 worth of beef, pork, guns and cash will be given away. In the first raffle 6,000 tickets were sold for $5 each, or for a less amount (seven for $20, three for $10) if several are purchased at one time. The first raffle raised $17,000. Businesses and individuals contributed another $24,640.
This year’s raffle goal is $50,000. Each flight costs between $20,000 and $25,000, depending in large measure on the price of fuel, which is lower today than in previous years.
Meats said Masons plan to set up ticket booths at Walmart and during Farm-City Days in Iola, as well as at similar venues in Emporia and Ottawa.
He encouraged veterans here and elsewhere to make applications for an upcoming flight, although “we have 90 applications on file.” Consideration is made for applicants who suffer illness or a disability that might prevent them from participating later.
Jeff True, a teacher and coach at Southern Coffey County High School, is coordinator of the Honor Flights.
Meats has been a fixture in Le Roy for years, first managing the Le Roy Co-op for well over 30 years and then at the local bank for 14 years, retiring in 2015. “But,” he said, “I work harder now with the Honor Flights than I did before.”
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