More than 60 years after the end of World War II, a memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C. to soldiers of that war.
And it is Doug Hastings' mission to ensure every local World War II veteran can make the pilgrimage to that memorial through the Vets to Washington Project.
"They love it. To a lot of them it is time for closure," said Hastings, who started the nonprofit project in late 2004. "I have a lot of them tell me before they get there that they are going for friends of theirs that didn't have the chance to come back from the war, that they are going up there to remember them, to honor them."
Evans resident Gus Phillips, a veteran who served as an Army unit commander in Alaska's Aleutian Islands and with the Third Infantry in Europe, said visiting the memorial was difficult because of all of the comrades he lost in the war. But he said the trip, though emotional, meant a lot to him.
"It sure did," said, Phillips, 89, adding that had it not been for Hastings and the Vets to Washington Project, he likely would not have made the trip.
The World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. opened in April 2004 and was dedicated the following May. The memorial, which was funded entirely by private contributions, includes Memorial Plaza filled with fountains surrounded by statues, and the Freedom Wall at the rear.
The dark blue wall is covered with 4,000 gold stars, each representing more than 100 of the more than 400,000 American service members who died in the war.
"I wouldn't take anything for having gone," said Albert Shaw, 83, of Evans. Shaw was a member of a mortar unit with the 69th Infantry Division, which served on the front lines of the war in Europe.
"It is enlightening to people who have never seen it or people who grew up after World War II," Shaw said. "They know nothing about it. It is enlightening for them to go there and see what America has done to save the world."
Hastings, a four-tour Vietnam War veteran, said the project was born from his effort to ensure his then-employer, Harold Mays, got to visit the memorial despite health problems. Mays, an Appling resident and former Navy pilot who served in the Pacific, went on the project's first trip in late 2004.
"When we lose this, what's been called the greatest generation, we lose part of the character of this country that made it so great for so many years," said Hastings. The project is his way of thanking veterans for their service, he said.
Owen Smitherman, 81, was on the project's fifth and most recent trip to the memorial in September.
"We had a ball," said Smitherman, who served in the Navy in the south Pacific aboard the USS Baltimore.
Hastings said the project has taken more than 200 local veterans to Washington. The project pays the more than $1,100 cost for lodging and transportation for the three-day trip for veterans and a companion to see the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War memorials as well as the Arlington National Cemetery and the Marine Corps Memorial depicting the flag-raising at Iwo Jima.
The project accepts donations to pay for the trips as well as trip sponsorships. World War II veterans take priority, but veterans of other conflicts have taken the trip as well.
"You can't believe how they love this," Hastings said. "This is the greatest thing I have ever done. I've never had this much fun in my life."
Donations should be mailed to: Vets to Washington Project, 3709 Fairington Drive, Hephzibah, GA 30815.
For more information, visit www.vetstowashington.com, or call Hastings at (706) 832-6483.
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