Veterans and Guardians prepare to go through TSA during the Maine Honor Flight's June trip to Washington, D.C. Credit: Mike Leonard | Maine Honor Flight

When Kenneth W. Preble and a group of other veterans arrived at Portland International Jetport two weeks ago, they were shocked to find a crowd waiting for them, as they returned from a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., supported by the nonprofit Honor Flight Maine.

Through Honor Flight Maine, the veterans enjoyed guided tours to the city’s historical sites. They started at Fort McHenry and Fort Mead, and later went on to visit several war memorials; first the World War II memorial, then the Korean War memorial, and finally the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“For a veteran, it’s the trip of a lifetime,” said Preble, 85, of Hampden, who served in the Army for two years during the Korean War. Several times each year, Honor Flight Maine brings around 40 veterans on an all-expenses-paid trip to the nation’s capital. For many veterans this trip is an opportunity to visit sites they otherwise might have never seen, even though many of the memorials were constructed to honor them.

During the trip, veterans and their experiences are made a priority. The group leaves for Washington, D.C., in the early morning from Portland International Jetport. Each veteran is given a shirt and hat emblazoned with the war — or wars — they served in, as well as a small disposable camera so they can capture the weekend’s memories, according to Honor Flight Maine’s Board Chairperson Laurie Sidelinger.

Additionally, veterans board their flight before the general public, and all are given a wheelchair to use for the entire trip if they choose to use it.

Honor Flight Maine, which had its first flight out of Portland in 2014, is a volunteer-run nonprofit that is part of a national network of chapters dedicated to honoring veterans. Their mission is to help veterans take these all-expenses-paid trips so they can visit the memorials dedicated to them.

The national Honor Flight Network was founded in 2007 and now includes 140 regional hubs. The network served more than 200,000 veterans by the end of 2017, according to the group’s website.

[Honor Flight trip offers Maine veterans a second chance at a ‘welcome home’]

Right now, the organization is focused on helping World War II veterans, as well as those who are terminally ill, although all veterans are welcome to apply to the program.

As for the airport crowd greeting the veterans after their return flights home? Sidelinger said they have some surprises in store for veterans who participate in their trips, and that they must be carefully kept secret to make sure the event remains spontaneous.

Of the surprises, though, Preble said they were truly special. “It was really touching, and I’ll never forget it,” he said.

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