Many Bellevue residents know Mary Baker as a friendly optometrist who cares for their eyes.
But to many war veterans, Baker is a volunteer who enthusiastically escorts them on a trip of a lifetime — a complimentary trip to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect on the war memorials dedicated to their heroic service to the country courtesy of the nonprofit, Puget Sound Honor Flight.
“Without the (volunteer) guardians, we wouldn’t be able to make these trips,” said Renee Peavey, co-director of Puget Sound Honor Flight.
While some veterans have family members to accompany them, the group relies on volunteer guardians to assist others who are alone. “A lot of the veterans — at their elderly age — need help with mobility issues, like pushing wheelchairs. It’s nice to have a buddy who keeps their eye on them, gets them water, takes pictures. A lot of these guys make lifelong friends with these guardians,” Peavey said.
While Puget Sound Honor Flight pays for the veterans’ trips, guardians like Baker pay their own way. “She did a great job. The vets loved her,” said Peavey, whose group’s slogan is “One Last Mission.”
In September, Baker joined 54 veterans from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars on her fourth Honor Flight. She escorted two Korean War veterans — Bob Holt and Jerry Rogers. Holt, of Eatonville, served as an airborne radio operator in the Air Force. Rogers, of Everett, was drafted into the Army at age 20 and worked in administrative support.
“I grew up in a Navy family, and I’m a Navy veteran myself,” said Baker. “I have a special appreciation for those who serve and their families who sacrifice to keep our country safe. It is a privilege to be able to honor the aging veterans who guarded our country at such a critical time in history. We’re losing about 900 World War II veterans per day. They’re quickly disappearing, and we need to get as many of them as possible to Washington D.C. to see their memorials.”
The journey started on a Friday morning, when the entire group joined at Sea-Tac Airport to board an Alaska Airlines passenger flight headed to Baltimore. Active duty members of the Coast Guard, who thanked and saluted them, greeted the veterans at the red, white and blue decorated gate. They then boarded Alaska Airlines’ customized plane that honors members of the armed forces and their families with the slogan “Honoring those who serve” painted on the body.
Once in Baltimore, crowds of passengers and onlookers applauded and thanked the veterans as they exited the plane.
Saturday featured a day full of tours to the National WWII Memorial, Lincoln and FDR memorials, and Korean War and Vietnam veterans’ memorials, where the veterans toured and shared their personal stories. “They felt very honored, and they were deeply touched,” Baker said of the veterans she escorted. “I like hearing real, live history stories of people who were actually there. I’m especially interested in WWII, the stories that you don’t read about in history books. It’s fun to hear them talking to other veterans about where they were assigned and the challenges of war that they faced.”
Before heading home the following day, the group toured the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, and U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force memorials.
“For most of them, it is a trip of a lifetime and one that they will never forget,” said Baker, who opened Overlake Family Vision in Bellevue after being stationed as a Navy optometrist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego for eight years. She contributed medical support to those stationed aboard the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, spending time at sea when women were just starting to do that.
Baker’s time in the Navy was different from the veterans she helps guide on Honor Flights. When many of those veterans returned from the wars they served, they immediately jumped back into civilian life. Many didn’t talk about their experiences. “Now they can talk about it with other veterans, and it’s really fascinating,” Baker said. “Some of these veterans are still suffering. They can’t sleep at night because of nightmares resulting from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They sacrificed a lot when they were there, and they’re still sacrificing. All these years later, they’re still traumatized by it.”
WWII Marine fighter pilot Ray Swalley, who joined the September Honor Flight, noted that memories of his past come back to him unexpectedly — at odd times. Swalley shot down enemy planes over Tokyo, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa helping to save some of the men on the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill after Japanese aircraft bombed him. More than 300 men died, 43 went missing, and 264 suffered injuries during the air raid. The Bunker Hill limped back to Pearl Harbor and eventually was decommissioned in 1947 at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard.
Despite a heroic military career, Swalley, 95, had never visited the memorial dedicated to him and the others who served this country during WWII.
The trip was “very emotional. During the war, a lot of that was put away in your mind somewhere, and every now and then it breaks through. But you never know when it’s going to happen,” said Swalley, whose son Mark accompanied him on the trip.
Baker said the trips are designed to honor the veterans in many ways. “These memorials in Washington, D.C., were built in honor of these veterans, and most of them would never see their memorial because of reduced mobility and declining health or limited finances. It is a very emotional weekend to hear real-life stories about the war from those who were on the front lines,” Baker said. “It is an experience of a lifetime to be able to thank the veterans who gave so much.”
To help re-create some of the happier memories of life during a war, the veterans enjoyed “mail call” on the flight back to Seattle. Families and schoolchildren wrote letters and cards to the veterans, thanking them for their service. “There were a lot of tears shed on the plane. It was very touching,” Baker said.
Each Honor Flight, because of the space and medical requirements of the aging veterans (the oldest on the September trip was 99), costs more than $220,000 to run. But all veterans are welcome. Puget Sound Honor Flight runs four trips per year — two in the fall and two in the spring. The next trips will occur April 21-23 and May 19-21. Sign up at pugetsoundhonorflight.org.