Before the group had even made it through the doors of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, it was easy to see that this was a special tour. While most of the group were dressed down in windbreakers and jeans, digital cameras stuck in their jacket pockets, it was their black baseball caps that caught people’s attention—“Veteran” stitched across the brims in bright yellow thread.
Museum security guards, some former service members themselves, stopped to thank these visitors for their service and commiserate about life in the military. Lines of second graders on a field trip, name tags half-stuck onto their bright sweatshirts, were momentarily serious while shaking each and every veteran's hand.
The Udvar-Hazy Center was a special stop on a four-day trip to Washington, DC, for the “Journey of Heroes” program, run by Wish of a Lifetime and The Vital Life Foundation. The annual trip brought 13 veterans and two Holocaust survivors to Washington, DC, to see the monuments, memorials, and museums that were built in their honor. For many of the seniors, it was their first visit to Washington, Wish of A Lifetime Program Director Steven Glaser said.
“We have Air Force veterans and aviation enthusiasts in every single group, but we have found that even for those who did not serve in the Air Force or have a particular interest in aviation, they are still blown away by the experience.”
The group—which included veterans who served in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam—took a docent-led tour of the Museum, splitting into smaller groups for an intimate tour of the collection. One of the tours was led by Museum docent Lee Smith, himself a WWII veteran and life-long aviation enthusiast, who took his first trip in an airplane in 1933. Smith, who joked that he’s on the mailing list for similar veterans’ programs, makes a point to lead these special docent tours.
When his group gathered, Smith spotted Jack Bell, a WWII Army veteran, accompanied on the trip by his daughter. Smith shook his hand, and tapped on a pin reading “WWII” placed prominently on his own lapel. They chatted briefly about where they were stationed decades ago, before Smith switched on his microphone and got to work.
The 90-minute tour—led by an enthusiastic and briskly-walking Smith—covered all the Museum highlights, but Smith was eager to point out military aircraft that the veterans in his group might have a connection with. He paused from time to time for his group to snap photos of the aircraft, or to take questions—he asked the group how he was doing, and Bell replied with a smile “So far, so good!”
After the tour, the group and their families got a chance to explore the rest of the Museum on their own, something the veterans were eager to get started on.
“We have Air Force veterans and aviation enthusiasts in every single group, but we have found that even for those who did not serve in the Air Force or have a particular interest in aviation, they are still blown away by the experience,” Glaser said.
One such aviation enthusiast was John Jones, on the trip from Oregon with his wife and son. Jones served as a 1st Lieutenant in the Air Force during the Cold War, assigned to a squadron transporting atomic weapons to and from bases. Jones grew up with a passion for airplanes, and it was his first time at the Air and Space Museum.
“It literally does not get better than this,” he said. “I could spend a whole week here.”
But with only an hour left to see the rest of the Museum, Jones had a checklist of aviation icons to see. He adjusted his baseball cap and went off exploring.