Program aiming to fly vets to memorial

qwestern@fresnobee.comJuly 6, 2013 

SF HONOR FLIGHT 01

World War II veteran Arlanda Ritchie, left, with his wife Margaret Ritchie, 87, right, both of Fresno, talks with the crowd at the VA Central California Health Care System in Fresno, Calif. on Tuesday, July 2, 2013. The Central Valley Hub of the Honor Flight Network announced its establishment today and its mission to honor World War II veterans by raising money to send local veterans to their memorial in Washington DC.

SILVIA FLORES — Fresno Bee Staff Photo

— Two World War II veterans from Fresno spoke Tuesday about their desire to see the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

One of them has seen it. The other aspires to. Both saluted a nonprofit program that helps get veterans there for free.

"I don't think anyone would not want to go," said Richard Christensen, 89, an Army veteran who went on an Honor Flight last year through a Northern California organization.

Arlanda Ritchie, 92, another Army veteran who joined Christensen at a news conference at the Fresno veterans hospital to promote the program, still hopes to fly to Washington, D.C.

The Central Valley Honor Flight has begun fund-raising to be the sixth Honor Flight chapter in California. Honor Flight is a nonprofit organization that flies WWII, Korean and Vietnam veterans to Washington to see their memorials.

The World War II Memorial has been open to the public only since 2004.

"I believe sincerely that we as Americans owe so much to the vets from WWII," said Al Perry, the president of the Central Valley Honor Flight and former medical center director at the veterans hospital.

About $26,000 has been raised so far, with a $24,250 donation from Educational Employees Credit Union, Perry said. That will pay for at least 16 veterans, but the goal is $100,000 by September in order to take at least 35 veterans on the inaugural Central Valley Honor Flight in October.

Perry said he hopes to keep raising money to pay for flights out of Fresno three to four times a year.

There are about 5,000 WWII veterans in the central San Joaquin Valley, he said.

For the past several years, local WWII veterans had to go through San Francisco or Bakersfield. Perry said Tuesday, "Why not fly out of here?" Christensen, who served as a field artillery forward observer in the 94th Infantry Division and received the Purple Heart, was one of those veterans who flew out of San Francisco last year.

Christensen said he got emotional on his visit while watching a mother explain the field of stars to her 7-year-old son.

"It was really a riveting kind of moment," Christensen said.

Christensen said his favorite part of the trip was being able to talk to other veterans about things he never told anyone, like being wounded.

"You bond really very quickly, like in WWII," Christensen said.

Christensen said he wouldn't have been able to go if it wasn't for the charity of Dianne Seymour, a friend at St. Columba Church.

Seymour, 82, asked the church to help raise money for Christensen, a former pastor, to go on an Honor Flight.

"I tried to raise the money myself, but I wasn't doing too well," Seymour said.

Together they raised $1,500 for Christensen's three-day trip.

There are lots of ways groups can get together and raise money to send one person, Christensen said.

Ritchie is hoping to join the inaugural Central Valley Honor Flight.

When he gets to the WWII Memorial, Ritchie wants to look up the names of friends he lost and find his own name on the registry.

"I can't express in words what it would mean to me to see it," Ritchie said.

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