By Michelle Bridges, VALOR Forge Publications Manager
Stephanie Harmon is president of the Utah Honor Flight organization. I met her in 2019 when I went on UHF Flight #33 — the nation’s first All Women’s Honor Flight as media rep. There were 54 women in all. And Harmon was our captain. She led and we followed. She infused the spirit of sisterhood, love of country and joy of volunteering. Harmon guides an army of volunteers to give the veterans placed in their care the experience of a lifetime. She encourages others to volunteer “for it changes your life.” Read or listen to her story.
Service beyond Self: Gifts from a Volunteering Lifestyle
Service is not something Harmon’s family talks about much, yet it’s become an unspoken tradition of how they give back for what they have. Her lineage is full of civic-service and military-minded members across the generations. “I don’t know any other way to live,” she said. “It is what I have been taught. How do you not serve and volunteer?”
Harmon’s mother, Judy Lemmons, introduced her to the Utah Honor Flight organization (utahhonorflight.org). Harmon went on her first flight as a volunteer guardian for a WWII veteran in 2014. She was hooked and began volunteering regularly. Eight years later, she is president and has been on 15 flights.
“Just being able to hear the stories is what drew me in,” Harmon said. In high school, she hated history class. But when she began hearing stories from WWII veterans who had actually lived through bombardments and battles, tragedies and triumphs, sacrifices and miracles, Harmon wishes she had paid attention in class. She is playing catch up to learn more about Korea and Vietnam so she can converse and understand the veterans.
The one flight that holds a place in her heart is the one Harmon went on with her father and uncle, both Vietnam veterans, along with her brother and cousin as their guardians. “Just being with them and being able to watch them,” she said was special. Next to that, Harmon says she can’t pick a favorite because each flight, veteran and story is unique. She can relate touching stories of those she connects with, amazing interactions with the public, and miracles that simple couldn’t happen “without higher powers” watching over the organization.
Harmon relates a story from the September 2021 flight she heard about. One UHF veteran was near the Korean Memorial when a young Korean man came up to him and kept pointing to his “Korea” hat. Asking, “Were you there?” The veteran said, “Yes, I’m a vet.” With his guardian using a translation program on her phone, they learned the young man was traveling by himself and had come to see America. He told the pair the reason he was alive was because of what this veteran had done in defending his country. The veteran gave him his hat and said, “We’ll be friends forever.” It was difficult to translate “forever” but something close was finally found. When the young man heard the word, he broke down in tears and kept thanking the veteran over and over. Eventually, they parted.
“Look around. You never know who you’ll find. It doesn't have to be big, just buy someone a coffee. Being in the right place at the right time for somebody, you don't know whose life you’re going to change.” —Stephanie Harmon
Whenever the young man came upon other UHF members, he would point to their hat, then his, and say the word for “forever.” Confused by the encounters, it wasn’t until the veterans regrouped and related their experiences that they heard about the original encounter. They all wanted to find the young man but he was gone. The guardian related that the veteran had always wondered if his war service had ever changed someone’s life. And now he knows.
When asked why she volunteers, Harmon says, “Obviously, I do it because I love it. You will get back so much more than any amount of time you put in.” All the hours and organization seem small in comparison to the stories she’s privileged to hear or the familial connections she makes. When a veteran passes away, Harmon cherishes the messages she receives from their loved ones sharing memories. “When I’m in a funk and I volunteer or do something for someone else, it makes me forget about my own problems.”
Harmon dedicates most of her volunteer efforts toward the Utah Honor Flight and Breast Cancer Awareness. She says volunteering on a large scale may not be for everyone and some may be limited with their time and resources. Harmon tells people “to find something you are passionate about or interested in.” So many different opportunities exist says Harmon.
With COVID and all, people were isolated for so long, they are so hungry for some type of connection. “Look around your neighborhood you never know where you’ll find a veteran or military family. It doesn’t have to be big, just buy someone a coffee. Being in the right place at the right time for somebody, you don’t know whose life your going to change.”
Learn more about the Utah Honor Flight organization www.utahhonorflight.org
Michelle Bridges is the publications manager for VALOR Forge.
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