DALLAS – Dave Fleischer straightens his denim jacket moments before his wheelchair is pushed through security at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Once through the metal detectors, the 96-year-old from East Dallas adjusts his black World War II Veteran baseball cap. His eyes light up when he spots a fellow veteran heading toward the same gate.
Dave was a mere 21-years-old when he joined the army. World War II was underway, and he would eventually be sent to Normandy, where he was a cook for a fighter squadron.
“I was really scared at that time,” he said. “We were close to the front line. You could hear all of the bombing and the noises.”
Dave is traveling with a group of veterans to visit the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. The voyage is part of the Soaring Valor program sponsored by the Gary Sinise Foundation. The actor, known for his roles on silver screen in Forrest Gump and Apollo 13, traveled with the veterans from Dallas to New Orleans. American Airlines chartered the flight, and all crew on board volunteered their time.
Like Dave, the men and women who served during WWII are now in their late 80s and 90s. Veterans Affairs estimates that nearly 400 are dying every day. With that in mind, the Soaring Valor program is working with the museum to preserve their accounts of the war before it’s too late.
“Nowhere in the history of the world was freedom in more jeopardy than in World War II,” Sinise said. “It was a trip to tyranny back then, and thankfully freedom won, and these are the heroes that saved the world for all of us, so we honor them.”
Despite being 10-miles behind front lines, the few times Dave was on guard duty stand out, he said.
“Course I was scared to death,” he said. “I was a punk kid. Never shot a rifle, never shot a gun.”
One cold night, he had a close call with someone who turned out to be friendly, he said.
“I grabbed that rifle off my shoulder, shoved that bullet into the chamber, and I was ready to shoot him, I really was,” he said, letting out a laugh. “I probably would have missed him anyway.”
Laughing at the story was Dave’s daughter, Robyn McAteer, who was along for the ride to New Orleans.
“It’s very, very special that this whole program exists,” she said. “Every daughter has their dad as their hero. But sharing this with him makes it even more special, he’s everybody’s America’s hero.”
Traveling with the 45 vets were 45 high school students from Grapevine-Colleyville ISD. The students selected needed to complete an essay explaining why they should be chosen to travel with the group. Dave was paired with a high school junior Thomas Stuart, an aspiring history teacher.
“This is such an honor. I’m really excited for it,” Thomas said. “The next generation needs to learn from the greatest generation because these people have so much to give us.”
It’s a special journey sparked by the greatest generation and shared with the next.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Dave said. “It’s been wonderful.”