By Jim Misunas
A local group that has earned state and national recognition for honoring World War II veterans has lost its affiliation with a national organization.
Central Prairie Honor Flights, coordinated by the Great Bend Central Prairie Resource Conservation and Development office, has been decertified from using the “Honor Flights” name.
The chairman of the Honor Flights Network offered no explanation why Central Prairie Honor Flights lost its certification.
The Central Prairie Honor Flights have coordinated 17 flights for more than 1,100 World War II veterans from Kansas to Washington, D.C. the past four years.
The governing board of Honor Flights Network, based in Springfield, Ohio, voted to decertify the local chapter in April. The governing board had apparently received a letter and several phone calls criticizing the local Central Prairie group.
LaVeta Miller, coordinator for Central Prairie Honor Flights, said the lack of affiliation with the national group will not affect the group’s mission of sending 350 World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. at a price tag of $230,000.
Veterans have visited the World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and Fort McHenry. Former U.S. Senator Bob Dole and current U.S. Senator Jerry Moran have regularly met the Kansas veterans on their trips.
“Our mission has not changed,” she said. “We’ve got a great group of volunteers who will continue to work to send veterans to Washington. We plan to go ahead with our Flights of Honor despite not being affiliated with the national group. We’ve still got 350 veterans in our data base who have expressed an interest in going to Washington. There are guardians who want to continue to help with the mission of getting veterans to Washington.”
Central Prairie operated five trips in 2011 from Wichita, Garden City and Kansas City. Four trips were made in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Miller said the group intends to proceed with future trips with a new name.
“Some of the World War II veterans who are aware of the current situation are hacked off,” Miller said. “It’s been such a fulfilling opportunity, we are not going to let these veterans down. We have done the best we can and have never had a complaint about the experience.”
Miller has worked with Central Prairie most recently as Honor Flight committee chair and started as the Pawnee County Honor Flight contact. The council received the Natural Resources Conservation Service Earth Team Partnership Award for its use of volunteers. Central Prairie RC&D utilized 419 volunteers logging 6,419 hours in 2011.
“When you’ve won state and national awards from your parent organization, the Resource Conservation and Development group, and find out the national office drops you, it lets the wind out of your sails,” she said.
Miller had been told that the national office had received a letter criticizing aspects of the Central Prairie operation. She suspects the decertification came about through the effort of volunteers who had previously served the Central Prairie program. She said the Central Prairie board had voted to deny some volunteers the opportunity to continue to serve in that capacity.
Jim McLaughlin, chairman of the national Honor Flight Network’s board, said that the national board had disaffiliated with the Central Prairie Honor Flight organization and a new group would take over duties in central Kansas. He declined to discuss specific reasons behind the board’s decision.
McLaughlin said the National Honor Flight program began in 2005. Currently, there are 116 hubs certified to be affiliated with the national program. McLaughlin said Central Prairie is the only entity to ever be disaffiliated with the Honor Flight Network.
Richard Foster, Central Prairie RC&D president, said callers to the Great Bend office have expressed shock and anger directed toward the decision. He asked McLaughlin in an e-mail how those questions should be answered.
“You can simply say you are no longer affiliated with the Honor Flight Network,” McLaughlin wrote in an e-mail. “You could say it was not your choice to leave the Network and leave it at that, but I suppose most people would continue to ask why. I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer.”
The Honor Flight Network operates hubs responsible for coordinating trips. The newest Kansas hub Honor Flight Kansas, replacing Great Bend, lists Mark Collins and Mike VanCampen as the contacts, but features no active web site.
VanCampen said the organization has not yet begun to accept donations. VanCampen of Turon was one of the group leaders who helped lead some Central Prairie’s flights. Kansas also has hubs in LeRoy, Concordia, Holton and Lyndon.
Foster said he is upset that another group has rights to the Honor Flight name that Central Prairie has worked hard to maintain.
“What I call the dissidents have literally taken Central Prairie Honor Flight’s name,” Foster said. “I feel like they’ve blindsided us and they are not answering any of our questions.”
The Central Prairie Honor Flight organization, based out of Great Bend but also operating through Wichita, has been one of the most successful such groups in the country.
Miller said she addressed several issues with Richard Foster, Central Prairie board chair, and Lyndon’s Brian Spencer, who serves on the Honor Flight Network’s national board. Miller met with the National Honor Flight summit in February.
“The board members I met with pledged their total support and said we were doing a great job,” she said. “We met and addressed all of those issues and we still got dropped. I remember, Brian Spencer saying is, ‘You guys are awesome.’ ”
Miller said she was aware of two health-related situations that occurred — one a fall and the other a heart-related incident that was handled quickly.
“In the case of the heart attack, that man’s life was saved because of quick response,” she said.
Miller has a lengthy check list to insure each trip’s success.
“Working with the veterans and their families and volunteers across the state and nation has been an awesome experience,” she said. “We have a lot of guidelines we have to follow to make sure everything works well. It takes a lot of time and effort to make that happen. I’ve been involved in that process from start to finish since 2008.”
Wichita’s Herb Duncan has served as a volunteer for Honor Flight Wichita.
“What really hurts me is the fact that our Kansas World War II veterans are going to be hurt and that makes me mad,” said Duncan. “Some of our World War II vets will not make it to 2013. There are a whole lot of people out there that should be ashamed of themselves doing this kind of shenanigan at this point in time. Why couldn’t everyone from the top down, try to put there vendetta aside and all pull together and get the mission done! The mission was and still is “send our remaining World War II veterans on honor flight in 2012”!
Miller said the Central Prairie Honor Flights program has enjoyed success.
“It’s typical that we cultivate projects and let them grow and blossom,” she said.