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Honor Flight

Ever since the National World War II Memorial opened in 2004, the landmark has been a popular destination for veterans. With more than 900 WWII veterans dying every day, there has been a concerted effort to get as many of them to Washington, D.C., to see the impressive tribute to their service.

The most-heralded of these efforts has been the Honor Flight Network, which provides free transportation and accommodations. Begun by retired Air Force Capt. Earl Morse in 2005, Honor Flight has become a nationwide show of patriotism. Approximately 100,000 WWII veterans have been escorted to the nation's capital to visit the monument at no cost to them. A minimal number of paid staff and countless volunteers have ensured enough money is raised, flights arranged, hotels booked and all details tended to in order for these heroes to have a safe, comfortable and memorable experience.

The efforts have been monumental -- and appreciated by everybody involved.

Unfortunately, as too often is the case when large amounts of money are involved, at least one individual appears to have helped himself to some of the cash. And it's thrown off the schedule for a number of deserving Kansas veterans, some of whom that won't have a second chance to visit the memorial. It simply will be too late.

Central Prairie Honor Flights, based in Great Bend and part of the Honor Flight Network, has closed its office. The nonprofit group had been the largest trip organizer in the state. More than $110,000 is missing, Central Prairie is $40,000 in the red, and its program director has been charged with theft by deception.

Regardless of whether this particular individual is guilty, damage has been done. More than the mere dollar amount, although that is significant enough. No, it's the lost opportunity for these veterans to receive their due. The ripple effects will be felt throughout their families, as well as those who just want to help out. There have been a lot.

The Hays Daily News has been covering this honorable program since it appeared in northwest Kansas. Here is but a small sampling of reactions from those involved with the Honor Flights:

* "I know how much it meant to our 102 World War II veterans that we took to Washington," said Pat Hageman, Natoma, who helped organize the 2008 Kansas Honor Flight. "It was a lot of work, but it was worth every single minute of it."

* "I watched with awe as these veterans looked into the eyes of one another and realized this was theirs," wrote Jordan Schmeidler, Hays, after accompanying his grandfather Harold Schmeidler in 2011.

* "It was more than I expected it to be," said Paul Dietz, Russell, in 2008.

* "I wouldn't have missed it," wrote E.J. Novotny, Russell, in 2008.

* "It's all about the vets," said Western Plains junior Eric Dysinger in 2009.

* "I think they did a very outstanding thing here," said Abe Miller, Palco, in 2008.

* "The Honor Flight men and women had given me not only a great day, but a tour in their magic time machine and let me relive and revive nearly forgotten moments of my long-ago youth," wrote George Stantis, Alabama, in 2009.

* "It's a lot of work that somebody's done with a big imagination," said Gene Hopkins, Ness City, in 2008.

* "It's just a fabulous story to see them get the recognition that they have deserved so long," said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who met the group that included his father, Ray Moran of Plainville, in 2008. Moran would later introduce legislation in the U.S. House commending the Honor Flight Network and its volunteers and donors. He also would greet numerous other groups from Kansas when they arrived in Washington.

In short, the Honor Flight program has much to be proud of. And until every last living World War II veteran has been taken to the memorial, the program is worth supporting and funding. We must not let one bad apple in Great Bend ruin future memory-making opportunities for these heroes.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net