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On a cold, windy, rainy day in Washington, D.C., a military serviceperson wheeled a grinning Dick Cagle off a very special plane: one carrying military veterans from the La Crosse, Wisconsin, area for a day of visiting military memorials and receiving waves of thanks from all whom they came in contact with. This was a Freedom Honor Flight, and it was a flight Dick very nearly missed.
Dick, 82, served in the Navy, beginning in 1956 with the Navy Reserve while still in high school. His service continued through a stint on submarines during the Vietnam War. He went on to retire as a chief quartermaster in 1978.
About two years ago, he signed up for a Freedom Honor Flight. Before gaining a seat on one of these first-come, first-served flights, he became ill and eventually went into hospice.
Enter Hilary Bingol, M.D., director of Hospice and chair of Palliative Medicine for Mayo Clinic Health System in Southwest Wisconsin. While visiting Dick in his home a few months earlier, the two chatted about his service.
Dr. Bingol, who volunteers as medical support on Freedom Honor Flights, wondered if Dick had applied. When he told her yes, but hadn't heard back yet, she asked, "Do they know you're in hospice?" Dick said he hadn't given them a heads up about the change in his health.
So Dr. Bingol reached out to her contacts within Freedom Honor Flight, and Dick's name was moved up the list. Then came the news that there was a cancellation on the May 7 flight. Dick was in.
The day in Washington, D.C., would be daunting for anyone. The agenda included:
- Gathering at the airport at 5:30 a.m. for a rousing send-off from family and volunteers.
- Landing at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, complete with reception and ticker tape-type parade.
- Touring the World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Marine, Air Force, Pentagon 911 and Lincoln memorials.
- Watching the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
- Returning to the airport, where they were greeted with more thanks, banners and a band before taking off for Wisconsin.
The flight touched down in La Crosse around 9:30 p.m., with family and friends there to greet the veterans. The grand finale of a long day? Fireworks.
"Dick lives independently at home, but we made sure he was prepared for the trip," says Dr. Bingol. "I also let him know that wheelchairs would be available if he wasn't up for walking."
As a physician volunteer, Dr. Bingol accompanied Dick and the rest of the veterans on the flight, along with paramedics and other physicians. They work as a team to keep the veterans well enough to complete the trip, but can take them to the emergency department in Washington, D.C., if needed. With four flights under her belt, Dr. Bingol says, "We've always been able to manage any crisis."
Dick's son, Tom Cagle, was on the flight, too, as Dick's guardian. He attended to his dad's personal care and was a companion for the long day of travel and events. Tom also is from La Crosse and a Navy veteran. He served on submarines, just like his dad.
"We had a couple weeks to get ready," Tom says. "My brothers, sisters and I took a poll to decide who would go. But Dad wanted one of us who had been in the military with him, and it worked out best for me."
Dick says he was particularly impressed with the Air Force and Pentagon 911 memorials. "I'd never seen them. At the Pentagon, they recognized all those who died there that day — the people in the building and on the plane."
Tom believes this was an opportunity for Dick to reflect on his time in the service.
"I think a lot has to do with the time he spent in the Navy, missing old shipmates and a lot of people who have passed, and his own mortality," he says.
While at Arlington National Cemetery, the pair had hoped to visit the grave of one of Dick's shipmates, but the weather scrapped those plans.
Although the day had its somber moments, there also was much camaraderie and joking among the veterans. For example, Dick says, "We had this motto years ago. There are only two kinds of ships in the Navy: submarines and targets. That's the kind of fun things; we'd just go back and forth with each other."
"Beginning with the send-off in La Crosse, then the great welcome in D.C., seeing all the memorials, then ending up with everyone greeting us back in Wisconsin, it was great seeing all the recognition they gave the veterans," Tom says. "I was a little worried the day would be too much for Dad. Although he was tired, he's resilient."
"I wouldn't have missed it for the world," says Dick.
"Dick did great. He smiled the whole time," says Dr. Bingol, adding this is just the kind of service hospice provides patients. "We want them to have the best quality of life as long as possible, and help them and their families live out their goals — like bucket lists of places the patient wants to go. Hospice is about living for whatever time is left in the best way patients can."
Freedom Honor Flight of La Crosse serves 30 counties in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, and is part of the Honor Flight Network. The organization's mission is to celebrate American veterans with a day of honor at various national memorials. Since its founding in 2005, the donation-supported Honor Flight Network has flown more than 245,000 veterans and nearly 182,000 guardians to the nation's capital. There's no cost to veterans.