Subsidiaries of BlueCross/BlueShield of South Carolina are picking up the tab for a fourth chartered airliner this year to carry World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see their memorial for free.
The four flights mark a record year for the state’s Honor Flight program.
Florence-based PGBA and Columbia-based InStil Health Insurance — which handle all of the claims processing and other services for the U.S. Military’s Tri-Care insurance program — have donated $45,000 to help sponsor a flight on Nov. 7.
“We’ve had the privilege of serving members of the military and their families for over three decades,” said Mike Skarupa, PGBA’s chief executive. “When we learned of this excellent program, we just wanted to participate.”
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The donation will allow the volunteer organization to have four flights in one year for the first time since it was established in 2008. And it is the third large corporate donation for the flights this, joining the S.C. Electrical Cooperatives, which donated $120,000 for two flights, one in April and a second which is scheduled for September.
The corporate donations are a new development for the program, which in its first few years depended on fundraisers by school children, individual contributions and donations by small businesses.
“We’ve been able to get four flights in this year, which is fabulous,” said Bill Dukes, the Columbia restaurateur who is the founding chairman of Honor Flight of South Carolina. “If we can get more corporate funding, maybe we can have two more flights in the spring rather than putting together one on a wing and prayer.”
After the Nov. 7 flight touches down, the Honor Flight organizations in South Carolina will have flown more than 3,000 World War II veteran to Washington, D.C. for free to see their national memorial.
Murray Price, 91, of Lexington, a B-24 pilot in the Pacific Theater, went on the first flight in 2008.
“I don’t think we realized there were as many World War II vets around as it turned out to be,” he said. “I was on the first and looked around and said, ‘Well, maybe we can do one or two more of these.’ Bill Dukes deserves a lot of credit. This is quite an accomplishment.”
During the day-long tours, the veterans are given heroes’ sendoffs and welcomes in Columbia and Washington, with bands playing, flags waving and even dancing partners. They tour the national World War II memorial, where they meet Honor Flight vets from other states and often are met by political celebrities such as former secretary of state Colin Powell and former Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole.
For many veterans, it is the first acknowledgement of their service in a war they won 65 years ago. One of those was Leo Browder of Elloree, a veteran of the Pacific theater, who went on the S.C. Cooperatives-sponsored flight in April.
“When I came back (from World War II) we sailed into Charleston, I caught a bus for Elloree and started looking for a job,” said Browder, who manned an LST — Landing Ship, Tank — in battles like Guadalcanal and Leyte Gulf. “There was never a lot said about it. We just needed work.”
Browder said his trip to Washington “was about as nice as it could be. Everybody treated us like kings. Every time we looked around they were giving us a boxed lunch. We had a good time.”
Nationally, the Honor Flight Network has more than 70 hubs in 30 states, all dedicated to flying as many veterans as possible to the memorial. In South Carolina, the Honor Flight program has chapters in Columbia, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Upstate and the town of Kershaw.