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My dad, Alexander Palos, formerly of Camarillo, enlisted in 1942, shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack. He was assigned to the 9th Air Force, 50th Fighter Group in the Army Air Corps. He served in France, England, and Germany, supporting Patton’s forces from the air. Like most of the World War II vets, he returned home after the war and didn’t talk much about it. There was no fanfare, parades, or thank-yous. It wasn’t until recent years that my dad started to share his stories.

A few years ago, my dad was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a very difficult disease to diagnose, and truthfully is a diagnosis of exclusion. Many lab tests and scans are done to rule out other diseases before the ALS diagnosis is given. My dad had gone through two major spinal surgeries before it was determined that he had ALS.

In August of 2013, I heard about a group called the Honor Flight, and by that time my dad was in the latter stages of the disease. The first I had ever heard of the Honor Flight was on the news that August. A group of World War II vets who were at the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., were being interviewed during the “government shutdown.” They were being told that they would not be able to see their memorial. However, this determined group of veterans who had fought for the freedoms we enjoy in this country today did not take no for an answer. They were not about to allow a few barricades to keep them out of their memorial!

Hearing about this led me to research the Honor Flight program. I found out that they take World War II vets to see their memorial free of cost, and they have several chapters throughout the United States. I immediately asked my dad if he was interested in going. Without hesitation, he enthusiastically responded, “Absolutely!” As difficult as it was for him to write, he managed to fill out the application within the hour. I started calling the Honor Flight chapters in California, only to find out that they were all booked for the October flight, the last trip of the year. I quickly added his name to the waiting lists. Time seemed to be running out as the ALS disease progressed. My dad, now wheelchair-bound, no longer had the use of his legs, only had minimal use of his arms and hands, and had difficulty swallowing.

Prayers were answered when I received a call from a new Honor Flight chapter out of San Luis Obispo County. I had no idea this chapter even existed! This new chapter was temporarily operating under the Kern County Chapter. They had just had a cancellation for their October flight, leaving from SLO airport. In addition, the coordinator, Bear McGill, lived only a few miles from my dad in Templeton. Each vet has an assigned guardian who stays with him or her during the entire trip. Our next hurdle was to obtain a guardian for my dad—a person who would be strong enough to handle lifting him in and out of his wheelchair and on and off the planes and buses, as well as pushing him in a wheelchair to the various sites in Washington, D.C.

Thankfully, my dad’s caregiver, Mike Balson, was the exact match for my dad’s needs! Mike agreed to be my dad’s guardian and rearranged his schedule to accommodate the short notice for the upcoming trip. My family was most appreciative of Mike’s physical ability. None of us had the strength to manage my dad’s physical challenges.

All wheels were in motion except my dad’s physician’s approval to take this journey. He did not feel that my dad was strong enough to make the trip, and he advised against it. True to character, my dad was determined to go—and that he did! Several family members who wanted to be part of this amazing experience began to make plans to join in the adventure.

Mike and many other strong men assisted my dad onto the airplane in order to make the flight to Phoenix, switch planes, and head for Baltimore. There were two water cannons spraying water over the plane, honoring them as they went down the runway. Family members from the East and West coasts traveled to the hotel where the vets would be staying. Fifteen of us—comprised of my dad’s children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and a nephew and wife—were able to pull off a surprise welcome for Dad. It was a highly emotional moment for my dad to see all of us. We were all able to enjoy visiting the World War II memorial and most of the other military memorials in D.C. with my dad and the other vets. Dad and all his fellow vets received a long overdue hero’s welcome wherever they went—including the big welcome home from the community in the San Luis Obispo Airport.

Upon returning home, Dad enjoyed seeing all the pictures of the trip and sharing them with family and friends. Unfortunately, this debilitating, deadly ALS disease continued to rapidly weaken my dad, and the Lord took him home in January 2014, just three short months after his trip. My family is hoping that with the recent boost in donations for ALS research from the viral social media “Ice Bucket Challenge,” a cure will soon be found! In addition, we pray that the ALS research will result in earlier diagnosis and treatment for this terrible disease.

On behalf of my family, I would like to thank all those who donated money and time to make Dad’s trip possible. If you know of a World War II veteran who is interested in going on the Honor Flight, or you would like to contribute so others may go, or you would like to be a guardian, contact Bear McGill of the Central Coast Honor Flight Chapter in any of the following manners:

  • phone: 610-4012
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  • online: honorflightccc.org
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  • mail: Honor Flight Central Coast P.O. Box 1750, Paso Robles, CA 93447

In God we trust!

 

Ken Palos lives in Camarillo. Send comments to the executive editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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