Last days of a Marine: Ill man's spirit went airborne on Honor Flight

Chris Casey,
Robert Lee soared in his last week on Earth.

Just a week before he died, Lee took a cross-country adventure with his brother in blood and his brothers in arms.

Lee, gravely ill from cancer, on Sept. 23 would not be denied riding on the Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., a trip that carried veterans at no personal cost to see the World War II memorial.

Lee, 79, was among the youngest of the 211 veterans who made the two-day trip. But he was likely the veteran who most urgently wanted to punctuate his life with the flight.

Lee died in his home Sept. 30 -- exactly a week after the two Honor Flight planes took off from Cheyenne.

Fred Lee, also a Marine veteran from Cheyenne, joined his younger brother for the whirlwind excursion.

Fred, 80, said Robert had been told he had two years to live.

"He lived a year longer than the doctors originally told him he was going to make -- I think through determination," Fred said. "He knew he was living on borrowed time, but he wanted to make that trip. He was a determined guy, and he made it. I'm real proud of him."

Sharon Lee said her husband never talked much of his World War II experience. He joined the Marines, working as an aviation mechanic, shortly before the war came to an end.

He'd been very ill in recent months, but Sharon saw his spirits begin to lift after hearing about the Honor Flight from the American Legion. She paused at the idea because of the exertion it would require, but she wasn't about to stop him.

Robert served a short stint in the military, but it was long enough for the aircraft engines to cause permanent damage. He struggled with hearing loss throughout his life, and the cancer that took hold in his mid-70s gradually eroded his health and his spirit.

But then came one last dose of glory, a chance to ride high.

Robert took it. Sheer will and his wheelchair would get him through.

Pushing that wheelchair around the airports and the National Mall was Mary Backes, one of 84 "honor guardians" who paid their own trip expense and chaperoned the veterans.

Backes, of Fort Collins, also served as guardian for her father, Carl Backes, who at 95 was the oldest veteran on the trip.

She said Robert never complained.

"You could tell he didn't feel well, but I think he enjoyed it," she said. "He had a little sparkle in his eyes -- always a little smile and a sparkle. He was a neat guy."

Fred watched his brother's spirit go airborne. It perked higher and higher as the trip progressed.

"My son-in-law met us at the (Cheyenne) airport, and he said Bob was smiling when he got off the plane," Fred said. "I hadn't seen him smile in many months. He was a very sick man, but that was a very good day for him."

After hitting that peak, Robert evidently told himself "mission accomplished." A week later, his body gave out.

Sharon was accustomed to seeing her husband pressing himself to the limit. He was always doing something, she said.

"When he got home (from the D.C. trip), he just gave up," she said.

Stan Cass, an Eaton resident and president of Honor Flight Northern Colorado, said he's glad the trip gave Robert pleasure in his last days.

"Having done (the trip), he was prepared to pass on," Cass said.

Backes drove to Cheyenne for Robert's funeral on Saturday. About 100 people attended the service, which Fred described as "wonderful."

Fred had three brothers and all served in World War II. They're all gone now, except him.

He enjoyed the privilege of being with Robert as the spark flickered.

Backes, meanwhile, in two short days witnessed the mettle of two Marines, the bond of two brothers. It was amazing to see, she said.

In the end, Robert concluded his well-lived life with a flourish.

Backes said, "He hung in there and toughed it out, and then he was finished."

Chris Casey covers higher education, immigration and diversity for The Tribune. His column appears on Wednesdays. To reach him, call (970) 392-5623 or e-mail ccasey@greeleytribune.com.

More info

Applications for veterans, guardians and volunteers for the second Honor Flight Northern Colorado, on April 29, 2009, are available at www.honorflightnortherncolorado.org.

Tax-deductible contributions are being accepted. Donations can be made online or mailed to:

The Community Foundation

C/O Honor Flight

711 8h Ave.

Greeley, CO 80631

For more information, go to www.honorflightnortherncolorado.org or call Stan Cass at (970) 454-5660. Honor Flight Northern Colorado is a component fund of the Community Foundation serving Greeley and Weld County.

Ellie