CINCINNATI – Dorothy Kist has been to Washington, D.C., before, but never quite like this.
On Tuesday, at 8 a.m. sharp, she was one of 140-plus aboard an Honor Flight bound for the capital city from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. As par for the course, all passengers on the flight were veterans. But, for the first time ever, all those veterans are women.
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It's an historic moment for Honor Flight and Honor Flight Tri-State, a hub of the national non-profit that's worked since 2005 to transport military veterans to their respective war memorials in D.C. Flights – there's five day-long trips from CVG each year – traditionally only charter former service members age 65 and older, and no local flight has ever included more than five women vets at a time, Cheryl Popp, Honor Flight Tri-State director, said.
Popp said they had long considered doing an all-female flight, but it had been hard for her organization to track the women down. Thanks to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), which reached out over the winter and assisted in the search, the dream is finally a reality.
"The VA approached us said," Popp said. "We put a package together and the VA mailed the envelopes. We invited 600 women, and we had 250 applications for 140 seats on the airplane. These women went through a lot, but they have wonderful stories."
Kist, 91, a Navy radio operator during World War II, is just one of those stories.
In 1944, at the age of 19, she enlisted, and just three days after her 20th birthday, she deployed to Hunter College in New York City. Since she was studying accounting, she thought she'd be relegated to a desk job, but she was among a select group of 40 in her platoon chosen to be singers; Kist said they would sing to sell war bonds on Times Square and on different radio shows as part of the effort.
Afterward, she landed the job as a radio operator. She served for about two years in all until the war ended, and she was decommissioned.
"Everybody teases me about it now, because I'll never remember how we did it, but they taught us how to make a radio out of a paper clip, a rubber band and a stone. And we did get code," Kist said. "When you look back at all the things you did, you wonder how you managed it, but we did. We had to work hard; it wasn't an easy job. But I enjoyed it."
While in D.C., the group will be making stops at the WWII Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other sites. Kist saw many of those monuments during a previous Honor Flight Indianapolis trip. But she's most excited to see the Women in Combat Memorial at Arlington, where the veterans will make a special visit. That and the comradely.
While most of the women served during WWII, Korean War and Vietnam vets, they've been paired with guardians who are more recent service members. They range in age from 96 to 28.
"I've wanted to see the women's memorial ever since it was built," said Kist. "And I was tickled to death when they said this was all women, because you have someone to talk to, and it will be so much nicer."
"It's definitely going to be a different dynamic," Popp added. "They'll be a little more free to tell their stories."
If Tuesday's flight is a success – and Popp says there's every indication it will be – it could be replicated at other Honor Flight hubs across the country. She says there's been a lot of interest, and many more vets to serve.
"It's so great that we're doing this," Popp said. "For the women who served in World War II, for example, they weren't considered veterans until 1972. They were WACs (Women’s Army Corps) and WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots). They took stateside jobs so the men could go overseas. They did manufacturing jobs. They built airplanes and tanks, and they packed ammunition. If they were killed in action, the family had to pay to fly the coffin back. A lot of them came back and were nurses or other professions, but they're vets to begin with. There's a lot of women in high office now that are so grateful to these earlier women – they consider them heroes for blazing the trail. There's a lot of respect there."