POULSBO — A Poulsbo veteran of four wars is fulfilling his last wish of seeing the nation’s war memorials in Washington, D.C., courtesy of the Honor Flight Network and his wife’s gumption.
About 18 months ago, Mary Waller was — as her husband Jim puts it — “poking around” in Jim’s mail and came across an application from Honor Flight Network, a non-profit organization that pays the travel costs of veterans — particularly veterans of World War II and terminally ill veterans — so they can visit the memorials in Washington, D.C.
Going to see the memorials in “the other Washington” had been on Jim’s bucket list for years. So unbeknownst to her husband, she filled in the application and mailed it.
About two months ago, Mrs. Waller received a call that her application was accepted and the Honor Flight Network would pay for her husband’s trip.“It knocked the socks off of me. I was really surprised,” Jim said.
But he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and become a Hospice patient. His reaction to the Washington, D.C., trip: “I can’t go.”
Hospice of Kitsap County worked with Bellevue Home Medical Equipment to ensure oxygen canisters would be available for Waller on the trip. His neighbor, a fellow Vietnam War veteran, signed up to accompany him. Mary’s family made plans to visit and keep her company while her husband makes the trip.
Waller leaves Friday and returns Sunday. “I can’t thank these people enough for all they’re doing. A nice hotel, meals, and we’re not paying a cent,” he said.
Waller, 86, is a native of Dixon, Ill.; he remembers, as a boy swimming on the Rock River, a lifeguard there by the name of Ronald Reagan.
Parentless at 16, he quit school and headed to Los Angeles to work. Unable to find a job, he enlisted in the Navy after paying someone $5 to sign papers certifying he was 17. After boot camp in San Diego, he was stationed aboard the USS Firedrake (AE-14), an ammunition ship that replenished carriers off Okinawa.
He was a 40mm gun pointer on the USS Louisville (CA-28), a heavy cruiser, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf Oct. 23-26, 1944, and Iwo Jima, Feb. 19-March 26, 1945. He served on the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) when it was hit by kamikazes forward and aft and a bomb amidship during the invasion of Okinawa May 11, 1945. After the war, he served on occupation duty in Japan.
During the Korean War, he served on the USS Bairoko (CVE-115), providing close air support for the Army and Marines. That’s when he studied for and received a rate change from boatswain’s mate to air controlman.
During the Vietnam War, he served aboard the USS Vega (AF-59), which carried stores, refrigerated items and equipment to ships in the fleet. According to online histories, the ship earned numerous battle stars and commendations for service during the Vietnam War, though Waller points out he never saw combat.
Petty Officer Waller retired from the Navy in 1965. In the ensuing years, he worked as a warehouseman in San Leandro, Calif., a train brakeman at the Bangor Navy base, a ship painter at the Bremerton Navy yard, and as a cook aboard fishing vessels.
During the Gulf War in 1990-91, he worked as a civilian cook on the USNS Kawishiwi (T-AO-146), an oiler assigned to the Military Sealift Command. “Jim is the epitome of the ‘salty sailor,’ which is an old nautical term referring to a sailor who is experienced and thus encrusted with salt,” said Jen Cleverdon, Hospice development officer.
“While Jim may not be literally ‘salty,’ although is language is, he is certainly experienced having served in four wars.”
The Wallers met in 1983, the result of a blind date, and it’s the third marriage for both. He describes marriage as “smooth sailing for some parts but it depends on how you handle the rough spots.”
“When I met them, they were both clearly devoted to one another, anticipating and finishing each other’s sentences,” Cleverdon said.
“I asked Jim if he had any advice from his life experience. His answer: ‘When I joined the Navy, you didn’t talk back, you just did, so I learned to keep my mouth shut. My advice to people, young and old alike, is to think before you say.’ Mary burst out laughing, ‘Jim, you never think before you say!’ ”
Waller has nothing but praise for the care and support he’s received from Hospice.
“I have been in hospitals before and been cut up and poked around and had various procedures done,” Waller told Cleverdon. “I can honestly say that since I’ve been with Hospice, I never thought I’d get this type of care. I never thought I’d be treated so nice. You all give the best.”
He smiled at his Hospice social worker, Kiam Parker. “In my estimation, you are angels.”
The Honor Flight Network (www.honorflight.org) is a non-profit organization that transports veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit memorials dedicated to honor military service and sacrifices. Among the honorary advisers are former senators Bob and Elizabeth Dole. Bob Dole was injured in combat in Italy during World War II; Elizabeth Dole was, as secretary of transportation, the first woman to head a military branch, the Coast Guard.
The Honor Flight Network gives top priority to America’s most senior veterans and any veteran with a terminal illness who wishes to visit his or her branch’s memorial. The program will naturally transition to Korean War, Vietnam War and all other veterans who served, on a chronological basis.
“Since America felt it was important to build a memorial to the service and the ultimate sacrifice of her veterans, the Honor Flight Network believes it's equally important that they actually get to visit and experience THEIR memorial,” the organization’s website states.