Mercer Island veteran takes Honor Flight for ‘one last mission’

John Kneepkens and his son-in-law, Jim, smile at the farewell dinner of their Honor Flight trip, after visiting war memorials. Photo courtesy of John Kneepkens

A national nonprofit made a difference in the lives of local veterans by bringing them to Washington D.C. from May 20-22, the weekend before Memorial Day.

John Kneepkens, a 97-year-old Covenant Shores resident, was one of about 50 veterans who flew to the capital to visit the National World War II Memorial, the Women In Military Service For America Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and the Air Force Memorial.

The trip was made possible by Puget Sound Honor Flight, which transports veterans for free so they can see the memorials built to honor their service.

Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit organization created to honor America’s veterans for their sacrifices, and provide a sort of closure.

Top priority is given to the senior veterans — World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill. Since about 1,000 World War II veterans die on a daily basis, honor flights are marketed as “One Last Mission” for America’s heroes.

“There aren’t many of us left,” said Kneepkens, who said he was the oldest veteran on the trip.

Kneepkens was drafted in February 1942 at age 22 and served in World War II, working in Army hospitals in the U.S. He was later sent to officer candidate school, and was stationed at hospitals in Austria during the Korean War and Hawaii during Vietnam.

He said one of the emphasis of the trip was to “get people in our country to recognize what veterans have done for them as citizens.”

“We gave our time and we gave our lives,” Kneepkens said.

This trip is free for the veterans, and made possible through individual donations and corporate support. No federal funds are allocated to this program.

Honor flights began in 2005, starting with six small planes out of Springfield, Ohio. The local chapter, which was established in March 2013 to recognize the local veteran population living in Western Washington, is headquartered in Olympia.

World War II veterans get priority when applying for a flight, but all veterans can participate. To date, over 100,000 World War II veterans have made the cathartic journey with the Honor Flight Network, according to its website.

Kneepkens said he heard about the organization when a representative came to speak at Covenant Shores. The chaplain at the retirement community, Greg Asimakoupoulos, thought Kneepkens would be a great candidate, and asked his family if they thought he could make the trip.

Each veteran gets a sponsor — a family member or Honor Flight volunteer — to help them throughout the trip, though the sponsors have to pay their own way. Kneepkens’ son-in-law, Jim, accompanied him.

Kneepkens said the trip was very well-organized, and that he felt proud, appreciated and humbled by the experience, and a bit “undeserving.”

“I never had anyone shoot at me, but I saw what happened to those who did [get shot],” he said.

Crowds of people waved at the veterans as they were escorted around the capital, and about 1,000 people welcomed them home to SeaTac Airport on Monday. They received letters from schoolchildren thanking them for their service, and got to meet a congressman and a few admirals.

Kneepkens said he particularly enjoyed the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Arlington, the Air Force and Lincoln Memorials and the memorial to women in military service.

He said he hopes other local veterans can take advantage of the Honor Flight Network, which is “an organization devoted to showing thanks.”

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John Kneepkens shows off his T-shirt and hat from his Honor Flight trip in his room at Covenant Shores on May 23. Kneepkens, 97, served in Army hospitals during World War II, and stayed in the military for 20 years after that. Katie Metzger/staff photo

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