A Hero's Welcome
posted on: 07/03/2013
A physician’s number one responsibility is to ensure the health of their patients to the best of their ability, but for one ProMedica physician, it also meant honoring one patient’s wartime sacrifice.
When Dr. Jeff Lewis’ patient Ernest Bollinger and his daughter asked whether the aging WWII veteran would be able to attend an Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., Lewis was unsure whether Bollinger would be able to endure the daytrip without medical supervision. Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio is a non-profit organization that organizes free daytrips to Washington for qualifying veterans who may otherwise never get to see those monuments commemorating their service.
“All these individuals were getting older. They’re in their 70s and 80s and some potentially in their 90s. And medically, their ability to get around, getting back and forth was strenuous, but they made wheelchairs available for everybody and each veteran had a guardian. If it wasn’t for this particular group, the expense by many of those who’ve given service to the country would have been too much,” said Lewis.
Realizing how important the trip was, the doctor stepped up to accompany the 90-year-old on a journey neither would soon forget.
“He’s a gentleman I’ve cared for a number of years, watched as he’s grown older and tried my best to keep him as healthy as I could,” said Lewis. “I was honored to serve as his medical guardian.” The doctor’s presence meant Ernest could enjoy the trip, even though he required oxygen, a wheelchair and medications.
The morning of April 30 was electric in the hangar at Toledo Express Airport, where Dr. Lewis and Ernest Bollinger gathered before boarding their flight. The feeling on the plane was much the same; every veteran spry with anticipation for the day ahead.
Arriving at Dulles International Airport, crowds of total strangers welcomed the group, waiving flags and embracing the heroes from northwest Ohio. A bus tour into the Capital meant viewing major monuments along the National Mall, including the WWII Memorial. The excitement from the day soon included solemn reflection as the veterans talked about their experiences.
“Some of the veterans were deeply affected by what they saw, returning to those memories,” said Lewis, recounting the mood from that day. “A lot who saw combat and saw their friends die--I think a lot of them kept that secret in the back of their mind that day. It was somewhat of a catharsis too. Some emotions and some tears.”
Dr. Lewis also found himself reflecting on the price of war and his father’s military service during the Korean War at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
“My father never got a chance to see that, and being with Ernest, he was like a surrogate dad where I was able to see how it affected those who viewed it,” he remembered.
The group moved on to the Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for a changing of the guard ceremony. The amount of gratitude and patriotism was immeasurable that day, with school children stopping the group throughout the trip, gathering around them to offer handshakes and hugs for their service.
They then rode back to Dulles in a complete police escort, boarded a flight back to Toledo, and were again greeted with a hero’s welcome.
“There was a huge crowd at Toledo Express, cheering with general abandon and waving flags. It was incredible to get off the plane and see all the people that cared.”
And for Ernest and his companion, the two returned home with a renewed sense of country, honor and respect for the sacrifice of their fellow veterans and those who came before them.
“Something like that makes you a better human being and pushes you to the limits of things,” said Lewis. “I have a greater understanding of what it meant to essentially be a warrior. We take a lot of things for granted.”