Our Neighbors...The Bailey Family
Christmas came early for the Bailey family this year in the form of a very special gift. And as it turned out, it wasn't so much about the gift they gave - but the gift they received in return.
Andy Bailey of Carlton, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Panama and also spent 18 years with the Air National Guard, had heard about the Honor Flight Northland program a couple of times on the news and learned more about it on their website.
Honor Flight is a non-profit organization created solely to honor America's veterans for all the sacrifices they have made on behalf of our country by providing them with an expense-free trip to Washington, D.C. for a day of visiting and reflecting on the memorials erected there in their honor. Each veteran is accompanied by a volunteer guardian from the area where the flight originates.
"I talked to my wife, Jan, and said, 'This would be just a great thing to do. I'd really like to be a part of something like this to honor the people who worked so hard during World War II,'" said Andy.
"The Honor Flights are currently geared specifically toward World War II veterans," he explained, "particularly because they are dying off in such great numbers. Most of them are from 85 to 95 years old, and every day is a gift for them."
Jan agreed that the prospect of making the Oct. 9 trip to Washington, D.C., sounded exciting.
"I thought, 'We can do this!'" said Andy, "so I got some applications. Then I got to thinking maybe this would be a great thing for the whole family to be a part of, so we asked them if they'd like to do something like that."
The Baileys have three children, Adam, 29, who operates The Jack in downtown Cloquet, Shanna, 30, who works at Woodlands National Bank in Cloquet, and Nathan, who was a captain in the Minnesota Air National Guard and is now an anesthetist in the Twin Cities. All of them grew up in Carlton and graduated from high school there.
"To be honest," confessed Adam, "when my dad first brought up this suggestion, we were kind of leery. It was expensive and a really long day, and my wife, Katie, and I weren't sure who we could ask to take care of our children."
Each Honor Flight guardian is required to fill out an application, be accepted and then come up with $600 per person to help offset some of the costs involved with the trip.
"As we talked more about it," said Adam, "we decided to do it instead of spending a lot of money on Christmas presents and having a huge Christmas celebration this year. Initially, we decided to do it to honor our dad, but then as we got into it further and started meeting our veterans, it got to be much more than that."
The first meeting between the Honor Flight veterans and their guardians took place about a month before the scheduled Oct.9 trip, and the Baileys all got together and met their veterans. After that meeting, the guardians were made the exclusive contact point for their veterans, keeping them updated on planning and schedules.
"It was a bonding time for us," said Andy.
The Bailey family group consisted of Jan and Andy, Shanna, Nathan, and Adam and Katie. They were each assigned to a veteran to escort - and Jan was assigned to two!
"When I met my veteran, Howard Benson of Grand Rapids, I really enjoyed him," said Andy. "He was a real spitfire. Most of the vets wear baseball caps with their branch of the service on them, but he had never had one of them so I told him I would have one made for him. I went down to Community Printing and told them what unit he was in - the U.S. Navy Air Corps - and he was just tickled with that."
Unfortunately, however, only eight days prior to the Honor Flight, Andy's veteran had an incident resulting in a broken hip.
"He was just devastated because he couldn't go," said Andy.
Andy was then assigned to another veteran only about three days in advance of the trip, one who was not actually in any of the battles of World War II because he was a couple of years younger than most of them, though he had gone to Germany in 1946 as part of the occupation.
Shanna was assigned to be guardian for a veteran named Clayton Oakstead from Aurora who was a bomb technician and had been on the bridge to Remagen when the Americans were trying to cross into Germany. He was one of the soldiers charged with cutting the wires leading to the remaining German demolition charges that were on the bridge.
Nathan was assigned to a veteran from the Silver Bay area, and Katie was assigned to a veteran who was a Seabee during the war.
Adam was matched with Doyle Cossin, one of the most decorated Korean vets in the area who lives in the Piedmont area of Duluth.
"He was just a sweetheart of a guy," said Adam, "and the day I met him he asked to meet my family. My wife and I and one of our children took him out to lunch in Duluth and got to know his family. He's around 85 and a real gentleman. His wife is super nice, too, and so is his whole family. On the Flight, they do a mail call for each veteran, and he must have had close to 20 letters. Every single one of his family wrote things such as, 'He's the greatest man I've ever known," and 'He's my hero.' I think at that point, I was even more emotional than Doyle!"
The day of the Honor Flight, all of the veterans and their guardians had to be at the Duluth Airport by 4:30 a.m., and the Baileys all rode together.
"We were excited, but we were unsure of what it was going to be like," admitted Andy.
"At that point I was getting really excited because I'd never been to Washington, D.C.," said Adam.
When they arrived at the Duluth Airport, the Honor Guard was there and as the veterans and their guardians checked in through security, all of the veterans got a hero's goodbye, with Guard members shaking their hands and thanking them for their service.
"When we got into Washington, D.C., we pulled up to the terminal," related Adam. "All of the people who were waiting for their planes must have been told there was an Honor Flight coming in, because some 200 people were there cheering and clapping when we got off the plane. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up on end!"
The 75 veterans and their guardians then boarded three buses with a police escort in the front and the back, with lights and sirens going all the way through Washington, D.C.
"We didn't have to stop at stop signs, and we didn't have to stop at traffic lights," said Andy.
"They treated these men like they were the President," added Adam, " - and they deserved it!"
The first memorial they visited was the World War II Memorial, where they spent about an hour and a half. From there, they went to the Women's Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery and then saw the Changing of the Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which they said was amazing.
"What was so cool about that," said Andy, "was that when everyone was there watching, including all of the veterans in their wheelchairs, and the guard said everyone should be quiet and stand up - and all of those guys in wheelchairs stood up."
Adam said in a preliminary explanation about the Changing of the Guards, they learned that when the guards do their walk, every so often they sort of scuff their heels on the ground in honor of the soldiers who have fought in the wars - including those in the crowd watching the show."
"They don't say anything verbal," added Andy, "just the scraping of their feet in tribute."
They also visited the Iwo Jima, Air Force, Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean memorials.
"When we went to the Vietnam Memorial," related Adam, "even though our veterans didn't fight in Vietnam, most of them knew someone who did. There were 85-year-old men with sheets of paper, stenciling the names of friends they had found on the wall. It was an honorable day."
The Korean Memorial features a marble wall with actual faces etched into the marble, and Adam's veteran, who fought in Korea, couldn't look at the actual faces.
"He said he could see all of the people he served within that memorial," interjected Andy.
"When we first came in," Adam said, "they had life-sized figures of soldiers in what they called the Diamond Formation. As we went along, my veteran, Doyle Cossin, pointed out, 'That would have been so and so...' and 'That would have been where so and so stood....' It all started coming back to him, and it was very, very hard for him, but we got through it."
He learned that Cossin was wounded three times in the Korean War.
At the end of the day, after the veterans and their guardians arrived back at Dulles Airport, Washington, D.C., they discovered that someone had hired a dance crew with music from the World War II era.
"There we were, all dead on our feet," said Adam, "but there were these 80-plus-year-old men dancing with these people and having a ball!"
Their return flight was delayed for a time, but when they arrived back in Duluth around midnight, the entire honor guard was there, including Duluth and St. Louis County police officers.
"It was packed," said Adam. "The whole upper concourse was all military people greeting the guys as they came in. I was in tears. For my guy, it was just like he had been elected President. He was waving at everybody and eating it all up."
The Baileys all agreed that if the opportunity to act as guardians on another Honor Flight should arise, they would certainly consider it - especially Andy, who has remained in contact with the veteran from Grand Rapids who had to cancel out at the last minute and is hoping to make a future Flight.
Since that time, Adam's veteran paid the Bailey family a visit at their family-owned bar in Cloquet and danced up a storm to a Fifties band playing there that night. Andy and Jan plan to visit him at his Florida home where he spends the winter. Katie sent her veteran photos taken during the Honor Flight, and he sent her back a $50 check to pay for the pictures.
"We never cashed the check because the pictures were all electronic," said Adam, "but he's sent her a couple of letters since then."
Shanna said she treasures her newfound friendship with her veteran.
"He has touched my heart more than he can possibly imagine, which is by far the best Christmas present that I have ever received," she said. "He is a true blessing and his friendship that I gained from this experience is one that I will forever cherish."
And now, as Christmas approaches, the Baileys all feel they have already had their celebration - a celebration that has resulted in a lifetime of memories and newly formed friendships that are bound to last a lifetime as well.
"I have to say, in light of the awful things going on in the world right now - like the shootings out in Connecticut," reflected Adam "- that we very blessed to have been part of something that was so good."