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Giving Senior Veterans a Chance to Say “Goodbye”

Jennifer Wegerer
By Jennifer WegererJuly 29, 2013

Senior veterans in hospice care may have family and loved ones far away. Thanks to the work of Luke’s Wings, seniors who served in the military now have an opportunity to bring the ones they care about most close to them so they have a chance to say good-bye.

Giving Senior Veterans a Chance to Say “Goodbye”

About six years ago, a group of young people visited Walter Reed Hospital, observing the struggles of wounded warriors and how important it was for them to have family and loved ones nearby during their long and difficult recovery. At that moment, these young people made it their mission to do what they could to help reunite these wounded soldiers with their loved ones for as much of that recovery period as possible.

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So they came up with Luke’s Wings; a non-profit organization that unites wounded warriors, veterans and heroes with their loved ones.

The name was inspired by another visit to Walter Reed. This one was between Sarah Wingfield, a Washington Redskins Cheerleader Ambassador, and Luke Shirley, a wounded veteran who had lost an arm and a leg in an EID blast. 

Since 2008, Luke’s Wings has worked tirelessly to provide travel tickets and travel planning services for family members and loved ones eager to reunite with wounded warriors in the hospital. Two years ago, the organization expanded its mission from active duty members to all veterans, including senior veterans in hospice care. The goal—to ensure that these senior veteran are surrounded by loved ones when they pass away.

And they do it all with just three full-time employees, two contractors and an amazing group of volunteers.

A Place for Mom recently had the opportunity to speak with two representatives from Luke’s Wings: Lindsay Kin, the Executive Director of Business Development, and Jennifer Magerer, the Executive Director of Family Communications and Logistics.

What Made Luke’s Wings Expand its Mission to Hospice Care?

Luke’s Wings has a single focus—airline tickets. That’s what it’s done for the past six years, but this service had been provided only for wounded warriors and their loved ones. In fact, Luke’s Wings has arranged over 1,300 flights so far. “Being able to bring such joy from dark moments is what inspires us,” Lindsay expresses.

And the support they’ve received from the community and corporations has been overwhelming.

As the wars transition down, however, the team at Luke’s Wings started to think about how to continue to provide flights and serve soldiers, both in this generation and past generations.

So last year, the organization struck a partnership with the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) and its President and CEO, Rick Grimes. Serving as a voice for senior living communities and the families it serves, ALFA influences public policy, promotes business excellence and ensures an informed public. As a result of this partnership, Luke’s Wings can provide a one-time benefit of two free airline tickets for family members or loved ones of senior veterans in hospice care.

Lindsay explains it simply, “It’s a way to bring families together to say good-bye.”

Initially, the funding for the expanded program came three years ago from the state of Texas—$300,000. The funds weren’t designated for any age group or veteran, but many of the requests were for visits with veterans of World War II. “It started organically,” Lindsay says. While the partnership with ALFA is still new, Luke’s Wings has been providing flights for the loved ones of senior veterans for the past 18 months.

How Does the Process Work?

The ALFA website offers an application specifically for people looking to connect with a veteran through Luke’s Wings. Any veteran who is a resident of an ALFA Member Senior Living Community and in hospice care is eligible for the benefit. In general, the process involves these steps:

  1. The senior veteran (or a representative of the veteran) requests transportation for family members/loved ones.
  2. An application, approved and signed by the senior living community executive director, is submitted to Luke’s Wings.
  3. Luke’s Wings reviews the application and arranges for travel.

Because of the nature of the senior veteran’s condition, requests for travel often come from case workers at a facility. Lindsay adds that it’s often the people on the ground—case workers, doctors and nurses—who reach out, knowing these families could use help. “Wounded warriors are reluctant to ask themselves.”

Jennifer expresses that as long as the person in hospice served in the military and the application meets the stated parameters, they’ll accept the request. Luke’s Wings works with a third party travel agency in Virginia, MacNair Travel Management, to book flights, including evenings, weekends and 24-hour service. If necessary, they can have someone on a flight the next day.

What about the cost? “We do pay a premium for short-term flights,” Jennifer says. “But the costs are often too much for veterans and their families.” Luke’s Wings eagerly pays that premium as a way to give back.

Is Personal Income a Factor?

Luke’s Wings doesn’t ask for financial information, Jennifer explains. “We believe in reuniting families and loved ones, whether it’s an estranged daughter or son with a parent or a fellow soldier that the senior veteran fought with in battle.”

The organization takes in about $120,000 a year from fundraising and is looking to expand that. One hope is that the partnership with ALFA will promote the cause and garner additional funds either form people who use the service or individuals who think they might need it someday.

Can You Talk About What These Reunions Mean to Veterans and Their Loved Ones?

Jennifer recalls a story about a Vietnam veteran who had stage 4 brain cancer. He’d been estranged from his daughter for about a decade.

Through a request from his case worker, the veteran and his daughter were reunited in time to say good-bye. Since then, the daughter has written several letters to Luke’s Wings to thank the organization. Having a chance to see her father before he died made her feel like a weight had been lifted. And she wouldn’t have been able to afford the flight without the service that Luke’s Wings provided.

What Makes Luke’s Wings Stand Apart From Similar Organizations?

Lindsay explains that Luke’s Wings is the only organization that provides airline tickets exclusively. Similar organizations work with travel partners to offer flights, but they tend to do other things too. “We’re looked to for flights,” she says.

Plus, Luke’s Wings sticks with commercial travel, while other organizations might offer private aircraft. For Luke’s Wings’ travelers, commercial flights allow for more flexibility should weather cause delays or if the city they’re coming from is out of the way. 

Also unique to Luke’s Wings is their emphasis on loved ones—no matter what their relation. “We feel strongly in providing for loved ones,” Lindsay says. “Other organizations might limit that to immediate family. We’re not in business of judging relationships.” If a veteran was closer to a best friend than a sibling, a nephew than a son, Luke’s Wings will arrange the flight either way. “We want the people important to veterans to be with them in their time of need.”

Does the Team Regularly Visit Veterans’ Hospitals?

The Luke’s Wings staff visits military hospitals as often as it can. Located in Washington, D.C., the team is 10 miles from Walter Reed and has visiting access at all times. With the expanded program, staff members, as well as interns and sponsors, have gone to many local senior communities and will continue to do so to ensure that more people become aware of the services Luke’s Wings provides.

What’s Your Vision for Luke’s Wings?

Excited about the new veterans in hospice care program, Lindsay and Jennifer express what an honor it is to serve veterans of all generations. “We hope it will become our legacy program,” Lindsay says. “Thousands of wounded will still need assistance, but the hospice care program can go on and on.” She adds that the need for this program is much greater than most people realize.

Currently, Luke’s Wings receives five to six requests day, with an average cost of around $400 per flight. And senior living communities are filled with World War II veterans in need of this service. Both Lindsay and Jennifer hope that people who have learned about or used the program will spread the word about its value and potentially donate or inspire others to donate.

What Inspires You Personally To Do This Work?

Jennifer’s grandfather was injured twice in the Korean War. She also has a cousin who’s about to deploy for a second time and an uncle in the Marine Corps. For her, it’s all about giving back. “We live in close proximity of major medical center where these wounded warriors are going. Even if we add up all resources collectively, it’s still not enough to serve everyone.”

Lindsay says that she’s just driven by the importance of the mission. “The resources these families deserve are hard to come by and limited. We take a small part of their journey and try to help.”

Do you have experience working with Luke’s Wings, or do you know someone who has? Share your personal stories in the comments below.

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