The Heart and Muscle Behind Honor Flights Twin Cities

This op-ed appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on July 4, 2019.

In a townhome in Roseville, Minnesota there’s a lot of red, white, and blue on display today. Actually, that is the decor every day, for the home in which Jerry and Jana Kyser dwell bursts with photos, commendations, medals, flags, and other symbols of their patriotism.

When I met Jerry Kyser at the Roseville Area Optimist Club last spring, he was sporting his trademark vest, peppered with commemorative pins and a fun button with the needle pointed at high.

He’d retired from a financial services career to support fellow veterans through Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Charity and Honor Flight Twin Cities, he said, and to fly aircraft in his spare time.

As he introduced himself, I thought this is a man who loves his country. This is a man with a story. He recently shared the story with our fellow Optimists.

Twice per year, the Honor Flights Twin Cities chapter (one of 140 around the United States) flies aging gents and some gals to Washington, D.C., for a whirlwind tour of the city. Donations defray the cost so veterans fly for free.

Jerry and his wife, Jana, are the heart and muscle behind the nonprofit. Jana in particular spends countless hours pairing World War II and Korean veterans with guardians who will accompany them on what is often a spiritual and emotional day.

Many veterans are paired with someone they know. Others begin as strangers and become fast friends.

In a span of less than 20 hours, 90 veterans who have little time or money left are transported back to a time when they wore uniforms and faced fears and foes.

Only 10 percent of the veterans saw combat, Jerry says, as his father did. He finds that some veterans who served in a more supportive capacity dismiss their roles as comparatively insignificant. But he and Jana insist every veteran deserves recognition. Every sacrifice, no matter its form, counts.

Many veterans left farms and jobs to serve their country and returned to little pomp and circumstance. There was no time to commiserate or to process their experiences. Consequently, “the greatest generation” is renowned for having spoken little about what they witnessed or endured while in uniform or for having been recognized for their service.

A great deal of planning goes into the flights, as the Kysers believe the delight lies in the details. Much of it centers on expressing appreciation and making the veterans feel special.

Mail call is replicated during the flight. Each veteran receives notes and cards from family members, even from strangers. Letters provide an opportunity to express gratitude. In some cases, they have also helped to reconcile estranged family members.

When the veterans step off the plane in Washington, strangers and dignitaries greet them with applause, handshakes, and salutes.

When they return to Minneapolis late in the evening, family, friends, and strangers cheer, and bagpipers play.

Yet, the experience is about more than affording recognition, Jerry says. He tells veterans they have a responsibility to those who didn’t make it to tell their stories. They need to educate those of us who didn’t serve.

Time together with kindred spirits opens a door for many who were reticent about their military experience. So as a police escort leads buses past landmarks and as guardians guide many in wheelchairs to view faraway monuments, travelers share memories and forge new connections.

For some, the discussion continues after the day has passed. Back at home, dust-covered foot lockers are opened, and long-silenced memories are shared with family and friends. One daughter wrote the Kysers to say, ““My dad started talking about his time in the Marines, which hadn’t happened at all prior to his honor flight. It enabled us to know him better” before he passed away.

The Kysers say the daylong experience breeds understanding and healing and unburdens some veterans of memories that lay dormant for decades.

It also serves to bridge generations, particularly when Vietnam Veterans like Jerry serve as guardians for men and women who served in World War II or Korea.

Jerry says, “It’s really important for the veterans to get that last little bit of positive reinforcement in their last years, to hear that they are not forgotten and that they are a big deal.”

Jana adds, “We try to convey that what they have done for their country is so important for the legacy of their family and for them.”

The Kysers’ commitment makes an impact. Handwritten testimonials, tributes, and thanks fill their home office files and bear out that truth.

“I have never been feted as gloriously as your splendid organization did on that memorable day.”

“Your planning, organization, hard work and kindly acceptance of World War II veterans will never be forgotten. All commented that the ceremonies brought tears to our eyes.”

“This was a grandpa’s paradise.”

Through their words and actions, the Kysers demonstrate principles to live by, regardless of the time of the year or one’s path in life.

It’s never too late to say thank you. It’s never too late to hear that you made a difference. It’s never too late to bury old wounds or forge new friendships.

Thank you, Jerry and Jana, for all you do for Minnesota veterans and their families. Your efforts  make a difference.

If you enjoyed this piece you can sign up here to have Caryn’s op-eds sent by email. You might also appreciate her award-winning memoir, “Bitter or Better,” in which she shares inspiring stories about choosing better over bitter when faced with adversity. “Bitter or Better” is available on Amazon in paperback and electronic forms. A signed copy can be purchased here.