MPAS director serves as Honor Flight physician

Honor flightA veteran himself, Emilio Vazquez said he was moved by the reception fellow U.S. veterans received when returning from the northeast Indiana Honor Flight.

“You get choked up,” he said. “You see these guys … they came back to the United States and basically went back to their lives. They didn’t get big parades.”

Vazquez, who serves as director of Trine University’s Master of Physician Assistant Studies program, volunteered as the flight physician for northeast Indiana’s 29th Honor Flight, which took place Sept. 19.

Honor Flights transport veterans, primarily from World War II or those with terminal disease, to Washington, D.C., for a day to visit veterans’ memorials and other monuments in that city. Now occurring in 140 hubs across 44 states, the flights began as a way to help World War II veterans see the World War II Memorial before they passed.

With fewer WWII vets still living, the effort is expanding to veterans of more recent wars. The flights are free for the veterans, with financing coming from the guardians who accompany them and other private donations.

After hearing about the program from a friend who volunteered, Vazquez originally planned to serve as a guardian for a veteran on the flight. When that veteran was unable to participate due to a scheduling issue, Vazquez was asked to serve as flight physician instead.

The day began very early in Fort Wayne with breakfast at the Air National Guard Base, which can accommodate all the veterans and guests in its mess hall. Following a sendoff that included friends, family and a water cannon salute by two fire trucks, the flight departed and landed at Reagan National Airport about 9 a.m. Vasquez said some 300 people showed up spontaneously at Reagan Airport to welcome the Honor Flight veterans.

Four buses took the group to various memorials, with National Park Service police as an escort. Stops included the World War II, Vietnam War, Korean War and Women in Military Service for America memorials as well as Arlington National Cemetery, where they watched the changing of the guard.

“There was lots of remembering people who didn’t make it back or died in the interim,” Vazquez said. “There were a lot of tears and a lot of smiles.”

Fortunately, despite the age of most of the veterans, there were no major medical issues.

When the veterans arrived back at Fort Wayne International Airport, they were greeted by about 3,000 community members. Vazquez, who began serving in 1972 until he retired from the Navy, said the celebration was a contrast to the reception received by those he knew who saw combat in Vietnam.

“(Those who greeted the veterans) were not family or friends, just people from the community,” said Vazquez. “They start applauding with the first veteran comes off and they were still applauding when the 80th veteran came off. It was quite moving.”

Fort Wayne offers four Honor Flights a year, and Vazquez already is planning to serve again in the spring. He said Honor Flight often has a hard time finding flight physicians because it’s difficult for many doctors to take a day away from their practice.

He encouraged anyone who is interested in serving as a guardian or contributing toward the flights to visit the Honor Flight website at hfnei.org.

“Volunteering is not hard work,” said Vazquez. “You just have to walk everywhere the veterans do. It’s definitely worth the effort.”

Photo: Emilio Vazquez, director of Trine University's Master of Physician Assistant Studies program, stands in front of the Indiana pillar at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. The flag in the case has been carried on all Northeast Indiana Honor Flights.