At age 87, Ed Schirmer has plenty of fond memories: Moving to Cornwall, N.Y. in the Hudson Valley from the Bronx as a young boy; asking his future wife, Mary Ellen, to the junior prom at the water fountain in Cornwall High School; the birth of his two daughters, Sharon and Kate; his promotion to the Essex IBM facility and a family move to South Burlington; his long, happy marriage; his countless fly fishing expeditions.
But Schirmer spent a day in September that jumped to the top of his list of fond memories, a day unlike any other. Accompanied by his daughter, Sharon Stine, Schirmer was one of 14 World War II and Korean War veterans to take an Honor Flight from Plattsburgh, N.Y. to Washington, D.C.
Schirmer is a U.S. Air Force and Korean War veteran, flying 50 missions as an aerial gunner in 1952. He spent four years in the Air Force, came home, started a family, became an electrical engineer, and spent 32 years with IBM before retiring.
His daughter Sharon, is a retired classroom teacher from the Rick Marcotte Central School, but now works there part-time as a literacy paraeducator.
On Sept. 28, Ed and Sharon were picked up at the family’s Mills Avenue home and escorted by three state police cruisers and five motorcyclists to the Grand Isle Ferry Dock for the ferry ride to Plattsburgh. There, they were met by another escort of New York State Police cruisers to a local restaurant, where they joined the other 13 veterans and their guardians.
“I was the only one from Vermont,” Schirmer said.
Each veteran was given a monogrammed North Country Honor Flight jacket with their name, rank, branch and years of service and a matching cap. Guardians got jackets and caps as well.
North Country Honor Flight
John Devino is the Vermont Representative for North County Honor Flight. He said his job is to find veterans on this side of the lake for the Plattsburgh-based group. While Schirmer found the information about the group on his own, Devino said anyone who knows a World War II or Korean War veteran should reach out.
“Unfortunately, not a lot of people on this side of the lake know about it,” he said of the Honor Flight program. “The program is very visible in Plattsburgh and supported by the local communities.”
The North Country Honor Flight Program is in its seventh year of operation. The group does fundraising all year round and is an all-volunteer organization.
When asked why there isn’t an Honor Flight program in Vermont, Devino explained that because the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base operated for so long, and with Fort Drum Army Base nearby, there are many more veterans in the Plattsburgh/North Country area.
Devino said North Country does five Honor Flights to Washington D.C. each summer from May to September. A total of five Vermonters took the flights this year, including Ed Schirmer. He said there is also a New England Honor Flight Program, but that runs flights out of Manchester, N.H. and Boston, harder to plan for Northern Vermont and North Country veterans.
While there is no cost to the veteran for the Honor Flight, guardians pay $400 for two nights in a hotel, plus the round-trip flight to Washington, D.C.
“I’ve helped maybe a dozen veterans take the Honor Flight now,” Devino said, “and everyone says they would endorse the experience 100 percent.”
A Day to Remember
After spending the first night in a hotel, Schirmer and Stine woke at 5 a.m. on Sept. 29 and assembled in a large hall in Plattsburgh, where several local and state officials gathered along with hundreds of local community members for ceremonies and speeches. “Taps” was played for a veteran from Plattsburgh who recently passed away. Dignitaries included New York Representative Elise Stephanik (R), Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read, and North Country Honor Flight officials.
“At 6 a.m., there were hundreds and hundreds of people in that room,” Schirmer said. “It was a really strong statement of patriotism and love of country.”
From the hall, the veterans and their guardians boarded a tour bus to Plattsburgh International Airport, led by an escort of fire engines, 110 motorcyclists, and several New York State Police cruisers.
As they made their way to the gate for the flight to Washington, Schirmer said the airport hallway was lined with families and children holding signs and thanking the veterans for their service.
“It was very, very warming,” Schirmer said.
The group boarded a United Express jet and flew to Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. Once they landed, all of the veterans were transported by wheelchair, with their guardians pushing them, from the airport.
“It was a rule, so Sharon had the honor of rolling her father around,” Schirmer said with a laugh.
“Oh, it was a pleasure,” Stine replied.
As they made their way through the airport to the next bus, hundreds more people lined the hallways with signs and good wishes for the veterans.
“They were all saying, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Schirmer recalled. “I shook hundreds of hands, mostly little children.”
The tour bus took the veterans to significant war monuments in Washington, including the Air Force monument and the Korean War monument, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington National Cemetery.
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the veterans and their guardians had the front row for their wheelchairs to watch the changing of the guard. The guard steps in perfect 21-step cadence and cannot break stride for any reason, but Schirmer said as the guard passed the Honor Flight veterans, the leader scuffed his shoe on the floor as a salute.
Back at Dulles International for the flight home, the veterans got one more surprise.
“Mail call!” someone said. “Mail Call!”
Each veteran was handed a large manila envelope filled with letters and cards from community members, friends and neighbors in their hometowns, thanking them for their service. Schirmer’s envelope included cards and letters from kids at Rick Marcotte Central School, among other South Burlington community members.
“We received letters and cards from people with beautiful sentiments of appreciation for Dad’s service,” Stine said. “It was very special.”
The veterans then boarded the plane and headed back to Plattsburgh. Schirmer and Stine spent the night at a hotel since it was so late, and traveled back to South Burlington the next day, overwhelmed with pride and touched by the experience.
Ed Schirmer is another Vermont veteran who wholeheartedly endorses the Honor Flight program.
“The thing it did for me is, it kind of gave me a bit of closure,” Schirmer said. “I always wanted to know more about the Honor Flight program, because when I came back from Korea, there was no one to greet me. I got assigned to a base to cool down for a while. This kind of put a bow on it, you know what I mean?”
Stine echoed the sentiment.
“It was amazing for me, too,” she said. “It was a moving experience to see my Dad honored in such a gracious and patriotic way.”
For more information on the North Country Honor Flight program, call John Devino at 802-863-5403.
SOURCE: Lee Kahrs, The Other Paper