Craig resident serves by assisting veterans on Honor Flight |

Craig resident serves by assisting veterans on Honor Flight

Brian Smith

Marine and World War II veteran Joe Booker, then 85, salutes the Marine Corps War Memorial in August 2009. Booker was among the more than 100 veterans to see the nation's capitol and various war memorials as part of the Western Slope Honor Flight Program based in Grand Junction. Booker lives in Frutia.

Bill Booker, a 59-year-old Moffat County resident, stands near his home at the base of Cedar Mountain. Booker has served as a veteran guardian with the Western Slope Honor Flight on three trips, which take World War II veterans to see the nation's various memorials and Arlington National Cemetery. Booker will participate in his fourth trip in May. Brian SmithJoe Booker, a Marine and World War II veteran who lives in Fruita, is pictured in August 2009 at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Joe's son, Bill, lives north of Craig, and said he enjoyed participating in the Western Slope Honor Flight as much as some of the veterans.

Joe Booker found himself in front of an iconic image.

Six bronze men stretched into the summer sun, frozen in time while raising an American flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Booker, then an 85-year-old Fruita resident, was in the shadows of the Marine Corps War Memorial, near Arlington National Cemetery.

Although he is legally blind from macular degeneration, he recognized where he was. The Marine and World War II veteran also realized the significance of what was in front of him, his son Bill said.

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There wasn't much said between father and son as Bill stood behind him, wheelchair in hand.

Words, however, weren't needed.

"He didn't say a lot," said Bill, 59, fighting back tears of his own. "He was pretty choked up. He did stand up out of the wheelchair and salute that flag. That was a touching moment."

Joe served during the later years of the war and was wounded in combat during the Battle of Okinawa.

"I knew some Marines that had been on Iwo," he said. "I heard about how rough it was there on Iwo Jima. With all that volcanic ash, you couldn't even dig a foxhole."

Joe had never seen Washington, D.C., or its memorials before.

That changed in August 2009 when he and Bill boarded a plane in Grand Junction bound for the nation's capitol with the Western Slope Honor Flight. They were two of the more than 100 attendees on the flight.

The grandeur and feeling of what they saw on the trip is something indescribable, Joe said.

"It is just like being in combat," he said. "Unless you have been in combat and know what goes on in combat, I could sit here all day long and talk to you about it, but it would just be water under the bridge."

The father and son represented two sides of the Honor Flight — veteran and guardian. The experience was something both wouldn't soon forget and compelled Bill to continue volunteering his time and money for the organization dedicated to giving Western Slope veterans a second homecoming.

Kris Baugh, president of the Western Slope Honor Flight, said the organization's mission is simple.

"Our (World War II) guys deserve this opportunity and we kind of call it their 'Bucket List,'" she said. "It's their one last opportunity. (The World War II) Memorial was built only five years ago — long after these veterans were able to travel on their own.

"The average age on our last flight was 86 years old. If this is something we can do for them, then we darn well better do it."

Bill, who has lived in Moffat County for about 37 years and works at Tri-State Generation & Transmission's Craig Station, has served as an Honor Flight guardian in each of the organization's three flights in two-and-a-half years.

Guardians on the flight look after the health and well being of the veterans and also help guide the trip.

He will attend his fourth flight to care for another vet May 4 and 5.

Bill first attended the event at the suggestion of his father. Throughout the trip, he assisted Joe with getting around the two days of flights, sightseeing and sharing memories.

But, he also served in another capacity.

"Just the whole trip being with him and being able to take him there was an honor," he said. "He has got peripheral vision, so he can see some things.

"But, I took a lot of pictures. He has got a machine that he can look at pictures and look at the stuff we saw later on."

In those pictures were the Marine Corps War Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Korean Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the World War II Memorial, among others.

"(The trip) is to make sure we can get all of the vets that we can to see their memorial before they die and they are dying at an alarming rate," Bill said.

Bill doesn't have any military service. The draft for Vietnam was over before he finished his apprenticeship as a carpenter.

But, Bill's trip with his dad was something he said he enjoyed just as much as the veterans who attended.

"I'm pretty sure I did," he said. "That's why I keep going back. I'm not doing it for a fun ride for myself. The second guy I went with had macular degeneration, too. He was, I believe, 93 years old and had to use a walker, so I wheeled him everywhere."

Two of the most memorable locations on the trip, Bill said, are the World War II Memorial and the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.

The World War II Memorial is an impressive sight to see, Bill said, from the brass plates depicting war scenes to a wall containing more than 4,000 stars on it, each representing 100 soldiers who didn't make it back from the war.

"It was all pretty much overwhelming," he said. "Realizing that 400,000 people were left behind and died oversees, that was something I didn't have a clue about."

Witnessing the Tomb of the Unknowns and the guard changing was "real touching," he said.

"When the new guy first enters, he does a hesitation just before he enters, which is a signal acknowledging that there are veterans watching the changing," he said. "That's pretty cool."

It's an emotional journey, he said.

"Yeah, there are a lot of tears shed from the time you leave to the time you get back," Bill said.

Despite being so emotionally draining, Bill said, he will continue volunteering his time on the trips "as long as God will provide the money to go."

"It is just something I feel God has laid on my heart," he said. "It is kind of like a mission. You know, some people go on mission trips to different places. This is my mission to help those guys get there."

There is a brotherhood among World War II veterans, Bill contends. It is something he has seen on the trips — a bond rekindled by the Honor Flight, the sights of Washington, D.C., and the grandeur of what they fought to protect.

"Oh yeah," Bill said with a laugh. "Then there is all the joking around, 'You're a jarhead,' or 'You're a deck boy' or whatever."

Joe agreed, adding he feels a bond with every Marine, young or old.

"You have this comradeship," he said. "Once a Marine, always a Marine."

Bill said Joe doesn't easily surrender stories and details about his service much anymore.

"But, you get him around some other old soldiers and he will just sit there and tell stories left and right," he said. "I don't know if you've ever been around old soldiers like that, but they are kind of funny that way."

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For information

The Western Slope Honor Flight is scheduled for May 4 and 5. The trip entails a flight from Grand Junction to Washington, D.C., and is free to any World War II veteran. The cost is $950 for guardians. For more information, visit http://www.westernslopeh… for an application, or call Kris Baugh at (970) 986-2995.

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