Group gives vets a free ride to WWII memorial in D.C.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
By Jonathan Barnes

Lydian Fisher has had a few moving moments while volunteering with a group that takes veterans to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. But none, she said, was more powerful than when an Army chaplain, during a routine memorial service, asked WWII veterans in the audience to invoke the memory of their fallen comrades.

"If any of you want to remember your buddies, feel free to call out their names," Mrs. Fisher remembered the chaplain saying to the group, gathered in the shadow of the memorial.

One by one, raising their hands and waiting to be called on like good soldiers, the men remembered their comrades by calling out their names. Some of the veterans were grizzled and stooped from old age, but their memories were vivid and tears rolled down their cheeks.

It was a fitting moment to cap a long bus ride from Pittsburgh for members of the Greatest Generation to see for the first time the memorial honoring their service.

Mrs. Fisher, 67, a retired coronary and critical care nurse from Brighton, Beaver County, has been volunteering with the 3-year-old grass-roots veteran service organization that has hosted the day trips since its inception.

The group is the brainchild of Jim Hilts, 62, of Coraopolis, a Vietnam War veteran who retired from the Army in 1989 after serving for 17 years and attaining the rank of major. His father, Loren, was a WWII veteran who had been a 20 mm gunner and Petty Officer Third Class who served in the Atlantic and Pacific. Loren Hilts was 17 when he went into the military, his son said.

Mr. Hilts' father always wanted to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., but he died before he got the chance.

"He was planning to attend the dedication but died before it. So I went down in his place," Mr. Hilts said. "It dawned on me a couple years later that most WWII vets would never see the memorial."

So, in November 2006, Mr. Hilts' company, Coraopolis-based Kingsway Engineering Services, paid for the first bus trip of 40-some veterans to the memorial. Fifty people in total attended, including volunteers, all on one bus.

Since then, more than 1,000 WWII veterans have made the trip to the memorial through the help of the World War II Memorial Bus Trip Committee, which Mr. Hilts leads.

On Oct. 6, the group will board buses to the nation's capital. The vets and volunteers leave Pittsburgh in the morning and visit the WWII Memorial. Then they head to the FDR Memorial, which is a favorite destination of the WWII vets, Mr. Hilts said.

About 16 million men and women served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. Those veterans are dying at a rate of about 1,000 per day, with 3 million to 4 million still alive, Mr. Hilts said.

For Al Quaye, a native of Moon and the owner of a startup information technology company in Arlington, Va., outside of Washington, D.C., the chance to rub shoulders with the WWII vets is an honor.

"What these people accomplished was nothing short of incredible. The whole world was on fire, with everybody fighting to the death, and they fought a war on two fronts," Mr. Quaye, 43, said, adding that the veterans got out of the service and went home back to work, without complaint. "Maybe I look for positive reinforcement from them, too."

To help, Mr. Quaye organizes the delivery of 10 to 15 wheelchairs for the veterans to use on the trip. Active service Marines regularly volunteer to push the veterans who use wheelchairs.

A former Army captain who served from 1991 to 1995 and saw action during Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti, Mr. Quaye's admiration for the WWII vets is based in part on his experience.

"You don't know how you're going to react to a bullet being shot at you until it happens," he said.

Costs for the trip are $50 per sponsored veteran. Total expenses for each bus are $2,500, Mr. Hilts said. The group runs entirely on donations from private sources.

To donate to the Bus Trip Committee, send checks in care of Kingsway Engineering Services, 1331 State Ave., Coraopolis 15108.
Freelance writer Jonathan Barnes can be reached in care of