Honor Flight debacle grounds spirits
By ABBY BELDEN
The disappearance of $110,000 has grounded the opportunity for Central Prairie Honor Flights to send World War II veterans to Washington.
Central Prairie Honor Flights is a nonprofit organization in Kansas that organizes free trips for veterans to visit the World War II Memorial.
The hub, which was based in Great Bend, was the largest trip organizer in Kansas.
According to the Associated Press, the organization raised $1.2 million for trips between 2008 and 2012.
The flights stopped, though, after more than $100,000 went missing from the nonprofit's account and flights were canceled in the spring. The program director, LaVeta Miller, was charged in October with two counts of theft by deception.
Central Prairie Resource Conservation and Development, which oversaw the program, closed its office in Great Bend because it was unable to pay Miller her $22,000 salary.
An investigation followed, which showed deposits into Miller's bank account and changed invoices, according to an Associated Press report.
The group is not only missing funds, but also is $40,000 in debt.
Central Prairie Honor Flights handed over its records and miscellaneous apparel to the Honor Flight based in Hutchinson.
It's not only the disappearance of money that has people upset.
"I hate what has happened to Honor Flights because so much of the media is focused on what happened at Great Bend," Debbie Hagans said. "It gives all the other Honor Flights a bad name."
There are many Honor Flight hubs located throughout Kansas.
"Our hub is the Southern Coffey County, and every year we have 10 seats on that flight," she said. "This is our sixth year to go."
Hagans, who is the trip sponsor and a social studies teacher at Western Plains High School in Ransom, said each year three students, six veterans and herself travel to Washington.
Hagans said the honor flight and her students participate in is called the Western Plains Honor Flight. Three students from her class raise the money to fund the trip to Washington for themselves and six veterans. The Western Plains Honor Flight meets with the Southern Coffey County High School Honor Flight when traveling takes place.
Hagans said she was contacted approximately three years ago by the Great Bend hub and asked to put veterans on the Great Bend Honor Flight and send the money raised there as well.
Hagans said no, and explained she wanted her students to experience the Western Plains Honor Flight.
"Ours was just different. I wanted my students to experience that," she said. "It is a wonderful trip. I regret this case, and of course this woman is innocent until proven guilty, but I regret how many veterans have missed their chance to go on this trip."
Rescheduling the trips isn't easy when time is a factor.
"Time is of the essence," said Pat Hageman, Natoma, who helped organize the 2008 Kansas Honor Flight that flew out of Salina.
Hageman said out of 102 World War II veterans the group took, 75 percent to 80 percent have either died or are to the point where they no longer can make the trip.
The 2008 Kansas Honor Flight took the veterans and 36 Rooks County seniors from three local high schools to Washington.
"I do know, bottom line, I know how much it meant to our 102 World War II veterans that we took to Washington," he said. "It was a lot of work, but it was worth every single minute of it."
Hageman said the veterans families also were appreciative.
While the 2008 trip was successful, he hopes the situation doesn't affect other Honor Flights.
"It's sad to hear anything negative," he said. "I know it's tough to raise money. I just hope it doesn't influence that."
Even though each hub raises its own money, Hagans expressed similar feelings.
"It still hurts us in a way because of the assumption of, 'Wow, Honor Flights are not doing what they said they were doing,' " she said.
"I feel sad that someone took a wonderful program and gave it such a bad name," she said. "When those gentlemen get to see Washington, D.C., and the World War II Monument, it is a wonderful thing to be there and share that."