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An honor to serve: Volunteer flight RNs bond with veterans

Laura Giambattista, RN, visits the WWII Memorial with brother veterans Howard Harvey, seated, and Ken Harvey, center right, and flight guardian Andrew Schiavello in October 2011.

When Judith Hogan Radke, RN, MS, PHN, heard about the Honor Flight Network, she signed up her father — a WWII veteran who had never wanted to discuss his experiences — to fly to the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Radke, a retired nurse anesthetist, also volunteered to be a flight guardian.

“We were set to go on the first trip in spring 2009,” Radke said. “My father passed away a month before the trip.”

Radke still boarded the flight, honoring her guardian commitment. “I realized just how meaningful it was to them. I’ve been involved ever since.”

Honor Flight Network takes the sometimes long-forgotten veterans to revisit a not-so-forgotten past. There are 100 independently run Honor Flight hubs. The first flight in May 2005 took 12 veterans to see their memorial.

Many nurse volunteers, like Radke, have stepped up to assist these fragile gentlemen on an emotional journey that offers camaraderie, gratitude and ultimately, closure.

Honor Flight San Diego relies on volunteer guardians and private donations. When the guardians are nurses, they are appreciated all the more because duties can include operating wheelchairs, monitoring oxygen canisters, and providing ambulatory assistance and emotional support.

“Just having the vision and skills in dealing with the aging population and being attuned to keeping them safe and avoiding falls is helpful,” Radke said. One veteran — a B-24 bombadier who had flown 50 missions to Europe — had flight anxiety and claustrophobia. “We knew he was going to need a front-row, aisle seat,” said volunteer flight guardian Laura Giambattista, RN, BSN, a med/surg nurse at the University of California at San Diego.

Howard Harvey was a hospice patient who received his physician’s approval to fly. He returned from the flight elated and passed away three days later. Family said he’d experienced the closure he needed.

“He ended his life with a flourish,” said Howard’s brother, Ken, who took the HFSD trip with him in October 2011. The brothers took the trip when they were in their late 80s, and both had served in the U.S. Army during WWII.

Laura Giambattista, RN

At the memorial, Howard met Sen. Bob Dole, who served in his unit and who often greets visitors. “My brother was in poor health, and this meant so much to him,” said Ken. “It did to both of us.”

Ken was most thankful for Giambattista’s help.

“Laura sat between my brother and I on the plane,” Ken said. “She was wonderful.”

Radke and Giambattista have served on five flights to date. Radke finds great fulfillment in her flight guardian role and arranges entertainment when the plane lands. To celebrate a Mother’s Day Honor Flight, she said, “we had a middle-school band play some patriotic songs, such as ‘God Bless America’ and the songs from the four branches of the military.”

Tears flow openly as the veterans — ranging from 15 to more than 100 in number — step off the airplane to thank-yous and handshakes from Americans young and old. “People will get on their feet and applaud,” said Radke. “We all become emotional,” Giambattista added. “It’s hard not to.”

Judith Hogan Radke, RN

Nurses are encouraged to volunteer for HFSD by downloading and completing an application from the HFSD website. More nurses are needed to address the growing list of veterans awaiting a flight. “We’re getting applications from all over southern California,” Radke said.

Acknowledging the veterans’ service by helping them reach their destination is a way for Radke to honor her father’s memory, and the feedback she receives makes it all worthwhile.

“It was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” Ken said. “It was just wonderful.”

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By | 2020-04-15T09:40:35-04:00 June 18th, 2012|Categories: Regional, West|0 Comments

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