On a Saturday morning at Arlington National Cemetery, the somber notes of taps echo over the granite and concrete at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Four senior San Antonio veterans, with the help of the Tomb Guard, place a wreath near the crypt.
"What we try to give them is the thanks of a grateful nation,” said Court Van Sickler, chairman of Honor Flight San Antonio.
Van Sickler founded the local nonprofit in 2014 as part of a nationwide coalition that runs Honor Flights to the nation’s capital. The trips allow U.S. veterans, often in poor health, to see the monuments dedicated to the wars in which they served.
Van Sickler says he'll never forget some of the trips.
During one memorable voyage, a Vietnam veteran suffering from the effects of Agent Orange seemed almost immobile during most of his Honor Flight trip until it was time to place the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
"So, he shed his jacket, shed his scarf, got into the group, and he marched right up there with everybody else,” Van Sickler recalled. “And when it came time to hold the hand salute for TAPS, he was a Marine, front and center."
Van Sickler is a retired Vietnam-era veteran, hailing from a family of vets.
"My grandfather was military,” he said. “My father was military, my uncle was Air Force.”
And it shows. At a banquet during the trip, he read letters written by family members to the Honor Flight vets.
"Not many can say that they come from a family full of heroes, but I can,” Van Sickler read. “And for that, I am honored and blessed beyond measure."
The next day, despite the fact that it was his 15th trip to the Vietnam War Memorial, Van Sickler himself is touched by the long black granite wall once again.
“This is my wall,” he said softly. “It's hard for me, sometimes, but bringing [the Honor Flight veterans] down here and doing this for them, that's why we do it."
And he does a lot for each Honor Flight trip. The planning and fundraising are constant. Each Honor Flight costs about $1,500 per vet. They pay nothing. Volunteers raise the money and schedule the transportation, hotel rooms, meals, and medical staff.
"He goes well above and beyond,” said Brian Posten, a board member of Honor Flight San Antonio. “I haven't seen too many people who have the passion that Court has. He’s very passionate about the program and very passionate about every veteran out there. And passionate about our country."
The volunteers and vets are passionate about Court van Sickler too. This Honor Flight returned home on his birthday to the typical crowd of hundreds of supporters, cheering and applauding the veterans at San Antonio International Airport. Once the crowd moved into an atrium surrounding a podium where Van Sickler was preparing to speak, a trio of women dressed in vintage 1940’s uniforms sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
“It’s just another day, gang,” Van Sickler said, trying to keep the attention on the Honor Flight veterans rather than himself.
Despite all the work, he says that it's all worthwhile when the Honor Flight comes home.
"You can't ask for anything better, you really can't,” he said. “And when they come up and, for instance, with somebody who's not a hugger, and they get their arms up and, y'know… Boom! OK! We've done it!”
Van Sickler has done it over and over again, honoring veterans one flight at a time. That's why he's another one of the people who make San Antonio great.