Coronado Resident Julie Brightwell Serves As Chair Of Honor Flight San Diego - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Coronado Island News

Coronado Resident Julie Brightwell Serves As Chair Of Honor Flight San Diego

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Posted: Wednesday, November 20, 2019 5:06 pm

Coronado resident Julie Brightwell has a lot of responsibility in her volunteer position as Chairman of Honor Flight San Diego, the organization which flies Veterans to Washington, D.C. and back, as a ‘thank you’ for their service. A full flight of 80 veterans and their 80 guardians costs $250,000 and typically there are two Honor Flights annually. Veterans participate at no cost, and all food, lodging, ground transportation and mementos of the trip are free for them. Since the founding of Honor Flight San Diego in 2010 by Dave Smith, 1,400 Veterans, primarily from World War II and the Korean War, have participated in an Honor Flight.

Brightwell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, which comes with a caveat. “There was no hospital in Lawrenceburg, Indiana (population 5,042) where I lived.” Julie graduated from the one and only high school in the city, Lawrenceburg High. She matriculated to Ball State University in nearby Muncie, Indiana, where she earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing.

Brightwell picks up the narrative, “My Mom was a nurse, and my sister and I both became nurses, so Mom was a good influence on us. After I graduated from Ball State, I moved to Columbus, Ohio to work at the Ohio State University Hospital. I worked in the surgical intensive care unit for 11 years. Then I went to the Ohio State University College of Law. When I got out of law school, I wanted to combine my medical and legal backgrounds. I now work for a medical malpractice insurance company, which insures close to 80,000 physicians and hospitals all over the country. We try to prevent patient harm and subsequent malpractice claims. I travel nation-wide for that. My title is director of Health Care System Patient Safety.”

While living in Columbus in 2008, Brightwell took her father, a World War II Army Veteran, on an Honor Flight. She explained, “My Dad passed in 2013. When my mother passed away in 1988, Dad lived in the family home in Lawrenceburg and then he lived with me for almost seven years in Columbus. I found out about Honor Flight and that is what really got me hooked. My father was born and raised on a farm in Indiana. Then he got to see Europe courtesy of Patton’s Third Army. His unit, the 16th Armored Division was late getting into the war. He was in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia when the war ended, and he helped hold the line when the Germans surrendered. They were running toward the American line because they didn’t want to surrender to the Russians.”

In January 2013, Brightwell made the move to Coronado. “I was able to move to the West Coast for my job and I decided since my brother lives in San Diego, I would move here, and I brought my Dad with me. I looked all over San Diego for a home, but when I came over the Bridge, I knew Coronado is where I want to be. I purchased a home here and I haven’t regretted that.”

Fortunately Brightwell’s affinity for the Honor Flight program made the move West with her. “When I was in Columbus, it wasn’t an official hub yet, but I made a several flights out of Columbus. I volunteered to be a guardian for other Veterans, and I became a charter member of Honor Flight Columbus when that hub was formed. I almost didn’t want to leave Columbus because I was so involved. I started on their Board in 2008. But I started volunteering in San Diego right away in 2013. I went on the board in 2014 and this is my second year as chairman.”

Brightwell discussed the Honor Flight and the founding of the San Diego chapter. “Dave Smith is our founder, former chairman and is still on our board as treasurer. Now there are 130 hubs all over the country, and every hub has their own 501-c-3 non-profit status. We’re following the guidelines of the network and we are part of the network. Each hub is responsible for their own fundraising, their board of directors and how they are going to run their flights. There wasn’t a hub here when Dave Smith took his father on an Honor Flight, and he was so moved by that experience, that he came back and started a hub in San Diego in 2010. Most of the 1,400 Veterans we have taken to Washington, D.C. are from World War II, but we opened it up to Korean War Veterans a year ago. We’ve done two or three flights taking Korean War Vets. I tell people, these veterans are just five short years behind the World War II Vets, who are now in their 90’s. The Korean War Vets are in their 80’s. On our last flight in the beginning of October 2019, our youngest Veteran was 84 and our oldest was 97. We have taken many Veterans 100 year of age and older. And we are still able to do that.”

The goal, according to Brightwell is one flight in the spring and one in the fall, the next Honor Flight scheduled for May 1-3, 2020, providing funding is available. “In the fall we flew commercial and took 63 Veterans. We try to get 80 or more on a flight so we can charter. It’s safer for us to charter, because we have 80 Veterans and 80 wheelchairs. The logistics of that are tough to do. We have four buses in Washington. I have to say one of the most moving Honor Flights for me was when we took a World War II Veteran to the Vietnam Wall to see his son’s name. He hadn’t seen it before, and Honor Flight was able to get him there.”

As an aside, Brightwell’s next Honor Flight will be her 50th, with 35 flights originating in Columbus and 14 from San Diego.

There is no full or part-time staff for Honor Flight San Diego, as Brightwell explained. “We have nine board members, we are small but mighty. We are all volunteers and most of us work full-time jobs. Everything we do is volunteer and all the money we raise goes to getting our vets back to Washington. We have no paid staff. I would be considered the flight director when we go, and I am responsible for the logistics of drawing up the plan, the four buses and the four teams. We have a team leader on each bus who do a ton of work organizing their teams and guardians. There are hours of work on everyone’s part. Our priority, of course, is getting the veterans and their guardians to and from San Diego. The guardian position is a working one, which is why we don’t take spouses. They push their Veteran in a wheelchair all weekend if they need it. They help with the meals, luggage and water. We get off the bus six or eight times during the day. We go to the World War II Memorial, the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Ceremony, and another stop at the Korean War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Wall. That last part is one stop, but it’s a long walk, which is why we have a wheelchair for everybody. We also do the Air Force Memorial, the Marine Corps Memorial, which is the Raising of the Flag at Iwo Jima, then the Navy Yard Museum. It’s a museum of all Naval history, but it has a really good World War II section and a whole section about Korea and the Cold War. That is all in one day. The veterans step up to the itinerary, they are so thrilled. We fly in and out of Baltimore-Washington Airport and take buses into DC. We leave San Diego at 7 a.m. Friday morning and the flight back lands at 4:20 p.m. Sunday afternoon. Everybody eats together, we have banquet dinners at the hotel, and we have a program for each dinner. Sunday morning we have a little time and we go to the National Electronics Museum at Northrup-Grumman across the street from the hotel. The veterans start reminiscing about the electronics equipment they used.”

Brightwell continued, “The majority of the veterans are males, but we usually have several women on each flight. We do make a special stop for the Women in Military Service for America Museum, which is located near Arlington Cemetery. We get our female veterans registered there and we get pictures of them.”

In addition to funding, one of the primary challenges facing Brightwell and Honor Flight San Diego is finding veterans for the flights. “The key for us right now is finding the veterans. We don’t have an advertising budget, unless someone donates ads for us. We have a Facebook page and we try to get the word out to different veterans organizations. We’re looking for World War II and Korean War Vets. We tell our veterans who fly with us to tell their friends. A lot of times kids or grandkids read something or see a Facebook post and figure out they have a family member who is eligible. We reach out to the senior living facilities and sometimes we find a veteran with a friend and they travel together. We will also take a terminally ill Veteran from any conflict. We had one Vietnam Vet on our last flight who was seeing the Vietnam Wall for the first time. As a surprise for the veterans on the trip, we collect letters from Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, schools, church groups and from any individual who would like to thank a Veteran. On our last trip, we had about 100 letters per Veteran for mail call. That connects the youth to the senior veterans. What is important for us is we are honoring and thanking these Veterans now and we want future generations to know and understand what they did. We had over 1,000 people come to the airport for the welcome home in San Diego in October. Often active duty military line up and we have the Patriot Guard motorcycle riders come. It’s quite overwhelming for the Veterans and it’s a really emotional homecoming.”

Guardians have to pay $800 to go on a flight. Brightwell said, “Our fundraising subsidizes the rest of the cost for the guardians. The Rotary Club of Coronado has been a consistent donor to Honor Flight.” The best way to make a donation to Honor Flight San Diego is to mail it to: Honor Flight San Diego ATTN: Donations 9423 Keck Court San Diego, CA 92129. Or donations can be made directly through the Honor Flight San Diego website at

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