Earl Morse wants every able World War II veteran in Maine to be able to see their Washington memorial, to touch its stone pillars and arches and feel the gratitude of the country.

“That is priceless,” Morse, a retired Air Force captain, said. “That is irreplaceable.”

He knows.

For about nine years, the physician assistant and pilot has been taking the aging patriots to the memorial. He co-founded the nationwide nonprofit Honor Flight Network about nine years ago, while working in a VA clinic in Springfield, Ohio, and has made the journey many times.

In D.C., he’s watched the tears flow as veterans read the memorial’s inscriptions, and he’s seen their smiles as other visitors make a fuss over the real-life heroes.

“For that day, they are 18 and 19 years old again. They’re having a good time and they’re cutting jokes,” Morse said. “One veteran said, ‘This must be what heaven is like.”

Since the effort began, Honor Flight has grown to 148 hubs, chapters located across the country that organize flights to Washington. In most cases, the flights have graduated from tiny aircraft to big commercial planes. All are free to the veterans. And on an average week, Honor Flight accounts for more than 1,000 people visiting the D.C. memorials.

Until recently, none have been from Maine.

Morse, 55, a longtime visitor, moved to Vinalhaven last year. Working with local schools and veterans’ service organizations, he managed to establish a new Honor Flight hub here.

In March, he took four veterans — one from World War II, one from the Korean War and two from the Vietnam War — to their respective memorials. And in August, he wants to take many more. He has secured 55 seats on a plane at Portland International Jetport.

His job now is getting the word out.

Though his national work has landed him in many newspapers — he was even an ABC news “Person of the Week” in 2007 — Morse and the program are relatively unknown in Maine.

He and friends have created a website, www.honorflightmaine.org, and Facebook page. They are accepting applications from veterans from across Maine.

He has also worked a deal with a small air-charter service to help gather some of the veterans from remote parts of the state.

The Maine veterans deserve it as much as any, he said.

“Maine veterans were just as brave, served with just as much selfless determination on behalf of our country, our values and freedom for the world,” he said.

For Morse, it’s a little like starting over.

The original idea for Honor Flight was his. He was working in the Ohio VA clinic when the World War II memorial was completed.

“When they dedicated it, I was giving high-fives to all of my World War II veteran patients. I was saying, ‘Man, congratulations. You got yourself a memorial.'”

Six months later, he learned that none had seen the memorial. It didn’t seem right.

Morse, a private pilot, went to his pilots’ club and asked for help. A dozen pilots stepped up. They loaded 12 veterans into small private planes, Pipers and Cessnas, and made the journey.

The flights drew attention and the mission quickly grew.

Donations paid for all costs. Nine years later, they still do.

“We have two rules,” Morse decided before the first flight. “Rule No. 1: World War II veterans don’t pay a penny. The ones that I was seeing at the VA no longer had their homes or life’s savings,” he said. ‘The reason why they came to the VA was so they could have their medicine.”

The second rule for the volunteer pilots was care. Some could walk. Some were in wheelchairs. Some needed oxygen.

Honor Flights still transport many who have trouble getting around.

For the World War II vets, it’s part of their age and their era.

“In five to seven years, they’ll be mostly gone,” he said.

Though Morse has pride for the work he’s done, it’s tinged with guilt for the veterans who have died before he could get them to Washington.

“At the end of the first year, we had successfully transported 136 World War II veterans down to see the memorial absolutely free, but that was probably the darkest time in my life because by the end of the first year, we had about 800 on the waiting list and about 60 had died waiting for us to get to them.”

The mortality of so many already has him planning for the next wave of veterans. People who fought in Korea, Vietnam and even Iraq have been on the trips.

The D.C. visits include all the service memorials, and veterans who are terminally ill jump to the front of the line, he said.

All are worth the effort.

“They know firsthand that freedom isn’t free,” Morse said.

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.