Veterans United: How Emmy-Winning Journalist Sarah Hill Connects Heroes across the Country



Sarah Hill
08/19/2013

Since 2005, the Honor Flight Network has taken on the mission of transporting America’s veterans to Washington D.C. where they can see the memorials dedicated to their service at no charge to them.

The popularity of the program spread nationwide, where others joined in to help further the program; however, even with the additional help, it hasn’t been able to trump the fact that an estimated 640 World War II veterans pass each day and many more are unable to travel due to illness.

Nearing a year ago, on September 4th, Bud Garnett – a World War II Veteran hailing from Laddonia, Missouri – felt this exact sentiment. Mr. Garnett was 93 years old at the time and was physically unable to fly.

As the group of about 60 World War II veterans took off from Columbia, Missouri, Mr. Garnett thought he would never get the chance to view the World War II memorial that, unfortunately enough, wasn’t completed until 2004.

However, with help from Central Missouri Honor flightand Veterans United Home Loans, Mr. Garnett did see the memorials and was in the inaugural group of "Virtual Honor Flight" attendees, aired via Google+ Hangout.

What makes Google+ Hangouts unique is the interaction offered to users. With Hangouts, you receive a 10-person video chat room, allowing veterans to speak with fellow members of the honor flight, see their memorials and ask questions in real-time. Almost as if they were there.

Since the inaugural Virtual Honor Flight, Veterans United Network has partnered with Virtual Photo Walks and Central Missouri Honor Flight with plans to extend the tours beyond Washington D.C. and possibly including Normandy, Pearl Harbor and even Mount Suribachi – the site of the iconic photograph which displayed Marines raising the flag during the battle for Iwo Jima.

With the partnership, the Virtual Honor Flights were renamed to reflect a more appropriate name, Veterans Virtual Tours.

Veterans Virtual Tours currently offers a group of volunteers that bring laptops to aging veterans so that they can experience the Honor Flight from their own home.

Additional volunteers then serve as the arms and legs for the veteran by carrying the other side of the live-streaming device, responding to the veteran’s requests that largely entail of finding a specific location on the memorial, asking a question or staying at a certain angle so they can reflect.

Earlier in the year, I was selected to be part of the Glass Explorers program – a select group of individuals that received the opportunity to use Google’s latest gadget, Google Glass – after submitting a brief video overview of the Veterans Virtual Tours program.

Since this is only the "Model-T" of augmented reality glasses, there are limitations, specifically the device’s battery life and microphone, but the technology presented offers the possibility of an even more intimate experience of the memorials for veterans who are unable to travel. For a better understanding, see this short Veterans Virtual Tour via Google Glass.

With technology like Google Glass, the ability for veterans who lack the means or mobility to travel to Washington, D.C., Pearl Harbor and other locales to view the monuments erected in their honor will be able to receive the full experience of being there, a feeling that is difficult to receive when you’re viewing with a basic camera or even mobile device.

I can’t even begin to explain how incredible of a privilege it is to share an experience like this with not just veterans, but living pieces of our nation’s history.

Being on the end of a Hangout where the veteran’s memories wash over them is a moving experience, and I couldn’t image not working to further this opportunity.

With the number of veterans we are losing each day, the team at Veterans United Network and Virtual Photo Walks would like to ensure that every veteran has a chance to see their memorial.

If you or a veteran you know may be interested in taking a virtual tour, please submit an application with Virtual Photo Walksor send an email to livechat@vu.com. There is no cost, and tour organizers bring the equipment and technology to the veteran. Top priority is given to World War II veterans and terminally ill veterans of all wars.

Twelve-time Emmy award-winning journalist Sarah Hill is the Chief Digital Storyteller for Veterans United Home Loans, where she is Hangout Host for its veteran and military issues news hub, Veterans United Network. Connect with Sarah on Google+ to start a Hangout, or chat with her on Twitter.