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Group wants vets to see WWII memorial

If you are a local World War II veteran who dreams one day of visiting the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., Gail Yakopatz wants to hear from you.

The Grants Pass resident is the president of Honor Flight of Oregon, a wing of the nonprofit national Honor Flight group dedicated to flying the aging veterans to D.C. to visit the memorial completed in 2004.

"We want to do everything we can to honor these veterans before they are gone," said Yakopatz, 58, the daughter of a WWII veteran. "They are all in their mid-80s or early 90s now."

Thanks to the help of Southwest Airlines, the organization is able to fly a veteran from Oregon to D.C. for $300, she said. The donation-funded trips include two nights lodging, meals and a private luxury bus for the veterans.

"We will accept donations from anyone, except World War II veterans," she said, noting they already paid their dues through their military service.

Yakopatz, 58, whose father was a WWII Army Air Corps veteran who retired from the Air Force as a senior master sergeant, helped organize the state chapter last fall. Her father died before he could see the monument, she noted.

"We already have 210 World War II veterans around the state registered for trips," she said, including 35 veterans from Ashland to Grants Pass.

The chapter's vice president is Rogue River resident Donald Daugherty, a WWII Navy veteran. None of the board members or volunteers receive compensation for their efforts.

Nine local veterans are eligible for the inaugural trip planned for June 17, she said, adding that they acquired eligibility by being first on the list. The plane will fly out of Portland.

"We are looking for financial support," she said. "We're hoping to raise at least $7,000, but the donations have been slow because of the economy.

"It only costs $300 to sponsor a vet for this trip — that's not much, considering what they have done for us," she added.

The goal is to have at least half a dozen flights for all the WWII veterans from Oregon expected to go, she said.

"We also need guardians to go on the flight," she said of volunteers to help the elderly veterans. They hope to have at least one person with a paramedic background to accompany each flight, she said.

Guardians on each flight pay $600 for the trip, said Yakopatz, who served in that role on two such flights from Northern California.

"In addition to donations and guardians, we might need help from people to give the veterans a ride if they can't get to Portland by themselves," she said.

Once all the WWII veterans in Oregon who want to see the memorial are taken on the trip, the plan is to later do the same for Korea and Vietnam war veterans hoping to go to D.C. to see their respective memorials built in honor of their wars.

However, the ranks of the WWII veterans are dying at about 1,000 daily, according to the latest U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' statistics.

Yakopatz can be reached at 541-955-4544 or honorwwiivets@gmail.com. The group's Web site is www.honorflightsoforegon.org.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.