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Homecoming Parade

Central Missouri Honor Flight Riders offer an escort to the heroes of World War II.

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Reed Hickam, 53, is the senior ride captain for the Patriot Guard Riders — those are the guys who protect fallen warriors’ families from nutball groups that would invade and disrupt their funerals. He’s also a ride leader for the Honor Flights. Like many things in life, the concept for a motorcycle honor guard began in a small way.

Hickam was contacted by a fellow Patriot Guard member, whose grandfather, a World War II vet, was going on the second Honor Flight. He wanted to know if Hickam would arrange an escort.

“So myself and four other riders showed up,” says Hickam. “With the help of the Missouri Highway Patrol, we escorted those buses in. When we saw those great heroes getting off the bus, they were walking a little taller and had the biggest smiles on their faces. They wanted to know if we did that escort just for them.”

All the bikers could say was, “Yes, sir.”

Hickam was hooked, and the motorcycle escort has become an integral part of the Honor Flight experience. For the 18th flight, Hickam says, “I was told by two veterans that they counted 513 riders. When a World War II vet tells me that’s the number, that’s the number I go with.”

The tremendous growth of the escort group is due to word of mouth, Hickam says. “People go the first time and can’t wait to go again, so they tell their friends to come along. Once people do it, they just can’t stop doing it.”

Various organized motorcycle groups — including the Masonic riders, Harley Owners Group, the Christian Motorcycle Association and many others — fill the ranks of riders. There are also scores of unaffiliated riders that meet every flight. These are the Central Missouri Honor Flight Riders, proudly wearing their own patch with the CMHF logo.

“It’s gotten so large, we’ve had to put together 20 to 25 people as a safety team to stage the bikes and make sure those who have never done a group ride know what to do,” Hickam says. “Safety is our No. 1 concern.”

Hickam is haunted by the fear of a serious accident on the way to Columbia. He’s worried that the vets will blame themselves and that will cast a dark cloud over what should have been a joyful experience.

“It’s so little what we are doing for them, compared to what they’ve done for us — that’s why we are so careful,” he says.

500 Patriots

Hickam, fellow ride captain Mike Helm, and their safety team begin staging the bikes several hours prior to the vets’ arrival in Kingdom City. They meet at the Firefighters Memorial to make sure everyone has a full tank of gas and has read the safety rules. Then, they await the signal to move out.

Hickam says he is grateful to the firefighters, who for the past few years, have stayed open late, making their facilities (and coffee) available to the riders. While everyone organizing, Hickam is in constant contact with the buses, so he knows exactly where they are and when he has to move ’em out.

“I hear from them every 10 miles,” he says. “When they pass the Williamsburg exit, we get everybody up and staged, and a minister says a prayer for us. To see 500 heads bowed is awe-inspiring,” he says.

When the buses arrive, Paulsell makes an announcement to the veterans: “On your right there are 500 of the greatest patriots you’ll ever meet — the Central Missouri Honor Flight Riders here to take you the rest of the way home. The bikes begin to pour off the on-ramp and take up position in front of the bus. As they pass, they salute the vets, and Paulsell cranks up a CD of military marches. It’s a moment that every vet remembers with pride.

Home At Last

A crowd of nearly 500 is waiting at the Marriott. A bagpipe band plays as the buses pull in. This trip, there was also a tethered hot air balloon. The balloon is decorated with an American flag. The Patriot Guard, directed by Hickam’s wife, Columbia ride captain Debra, has set up flags along the bus route, and CMHF volunteers have decorated whatever needed decorating. Columbia firefighters have raised a huge American flag, and there is a VFW color guard.

This is the homecoming most of these veterans never received. “Where else can you see cops and bikers, guys in kilts, and families gathered together in one place?” Paulsell asks. “There are no distinctions, they are all Americans.”

“I was amazed to see all those people there that late at night,” says Walter Rolley Jr., a 93-year-old Army vet who served in the 92nd Infantry Division, an all-black outfit in Italy. His job was to transport ammunition to the front lines. “I was lucky enough to get there and back,” he says modestly.

Navy vet John Ames, 85, says, “The way we were treated … I’ve never been treated that way in my life — with so much courtesy and kindness. I’d love to go again if that were possible.”

“We stay with the vets until their families arrive,” Hickam says. He is fascinated by their stories and their courage, and is determined to give back to them for their service.   

The Greatest Day

“These guys are heroes,” says Guardian Roberson. “They made this country what it is today. We enjoy the things we enjoy because these guys went out and fought. They were called up, they reported to their units, they were sent off — they didn’t know where they were going or what they were supposed to do. They didn’t know when they were coming back, or even if they were coming back. And when they did return, they just got on a bus or a train, went home, and went back to work — with no homecoming. The Honor Flight is just a small, small way to say ‘thank you’ for what you did.”

The care and concern of everybody involved in the CMHF program is overwhelming, and that has paid dividends.

“This group has changed my way of looking at the older generation,” Bell says. “It’s changed my family in the amount of respect they show. I’ve seen a change in my grandchildren and in my own kids. They are more aware of the Greatest Generation.”

“Our objective as a team is to say we left it all on the field, to use a sports analogy,” Paulsell says. “Many of the vets tell us, ‘This was the greatest day of my life.’ To hear a 90-year-old, who has gone through war, marriages, kids, grandkids and a successful career make such a statement is just overwhelming. That’s why we do it.”

Want To Contribute?

Help find World War II veterans. Many vets don’t know about the Honor Flight program. Ask at work, church and social functions — spread the word. If you know a World War II veteran who has not gone on an Honor Flight, you can obtain an application online at centralmissourihonorflight.com.

Attend homecoming. That’s when the veterans return from Washington, D.C. Help give them the homecoming celebration they never had more than 60 years ago. The next flight is scheduled for July 3, 2012, with arrival back at the Courtyard by Marriott around 12:50 a.m. on July 4. What better way to kick off Independence Day than by thanking the very vets who protected that independence? Everyone is welcome; bring the entire family, flags, and signs. Plan on arriving by 12:15 a.m.

Donations are welcome. If you want to help keep the program running, send your donations to Central Missouri Honor Flight, 1400 Forum Blvd., Suite 38, Box 334, Columbia, MO 65203. CMHF is a 501 (c) (3) corporation.

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