Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Aug. 26, 2020 —
For many, Bob Hope is a name associated with a deep devotion to the men and women of the Armed Forces. And, if you are a World War II, Korean or Vietnam War veteran in coastal Virginia, there is a chance you might associate the name April Maletz with the same patriotism.
But, let’s start at the beginning.
The year is 1941, and Bob Hope is performing for the troops for the first time at March Field, California. Over the next 50 years, Hope would complete 57 tours with the United Service Organization – better known as the USO – and entertain over 10 million troops in locations spanning the combat zones of World War II, the remote reaches of Vietnam and the operating theaters of the Gulf War.
In 1997, Congress granted Hope the title of “honorary veteran,” making him the first of only two civilians to receive this honor.
Hope passed away in 2003, but his patriotism carries on through the Spirit of Hope Award, established by the Department of Defense in 2000 as a way to honor individuals who “epitomize selfless service and dedicated commitment to our military and are reflective of the significant impact of Bob Hope.”
This year’s recipient, April Maletz, is the first Defense Intelligence Agency officer chosen in the award’s history – a fitting honor for someone who has spent countless hours serving veterans and who daily embodies Bob Hope’s values of duty, honor, courage, loyalty, commitment, integrity and selfless dedication.
Maletz herself is a patriot – retiring from the Navy as a senior chief petty officer and currently serving with the Joint Staff in Norfolk, Virginia. But she doesn’t view herself that way. She simply sees herself as a mom, a wife, a sailor and a civil servant – someone who uses a small platform to make a big difference.
For over a decade, Maletz has volunteered with Old Dominion Honor Flight, a local hub of a national non-profit organization that brings World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials that honor their service and sacrifice.
After the veterans receive a hero’s welcome in the capital, their trips – or missions – make stops at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, the Air Force Memorial and the war memorials on the National Mall, culminating in a solemn and emotional trip to Arlington National Cemetery.
While each mission is planned down to the minute, all hold their own unique and special moments. For Maletz, her first mission with Honor Flight stands out the most.
That day, she served as the guardian for Alice Wamsley, a Navy veteran and one of the few female senior non-commissioned officers of World War II.
Even years later, Maletz’s voice still grew soft as she recounted her time with Wamsley.
“Being able to be there with her and live through her eyes for a day was so much fun,” said Maletz. “There is a special place in my heart for female veterans. I tell them ‘thank you for wearing the uniform because it allowed me to do the same.’”
That experience – the mission that caused Maletz to, in her own words, “drink the kool-aid” – launched a volunteer career that would eventually lead her to help raise half a million dollars for Honor Flight, participate in 20 missions and bring over 1,600 veterans to the nation’s capital.
“I live a charmed life,” said Maletz, reflecting on the individuals she has met throughout her time with Honor Flight. “I have been exposed to American greatness and I don’t take that for granted.”
Through Honor Flight, Maletz has had the opportunity to befriend paratroopers who landed behind enemy lines on D-Day, men who stormed the beaches of Normandy and veterans who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam – so-called “triple threats”.
One of Maletz’s favorite parts of each mission is mail call, a time where each veteran receives letters and notes from their family, friends and, often, grateful Americans. This moment is poignant – paying tribute to the many veterans who only communicated through letters during war.
Maletz ensures that each veteran receives a personal letter. It’s just a part of what she terms “Honor Flight magic.”
“The letters that they love are ones from people they don’t know,” said Maletz. “It reminds them that people genuinely care – that our country is okay.”
Many veterans – especially those from World War II – do not have the opportunity to participate in Honor Flight before they pass away. But Maletz and Old Dominion Honor Flight have found a way to honor the memory of these men and women through an initiative called Flags of our Heroes.
For veterans who pass away before their scheduled Honor Flight, a guardian takes a photograph of the veteran and an American flag to their war memorial. Upon the group’s arrival at the memorial, a uniformed service member is photographed with the picture of the veterans and the flag as a tribute to the service and memory of the deceased veteran.
“They are no longer here physically but are here with us in spirit,” reflected Maletz.
Upon the return of the mission, Honor Flight presents a certificate and the folded flag to the family of the veteran.
In receiving the Spirit of Hope Award, Maletz joins the ranks of individuals like Toby Keith and Gary Sinise, both previous recipients of this honor. However, she is quick to show humility and point to the reason she volunteers.
She doesn’t dedicate thousands of hours of time for the recognition or awards – Maletz shares her time and life with these veterans to say thank you and to learn the stories of the Greatest Generation and others who stood in the gap for the nation.
“You don’t have to be Gary Sinise or Toby Keith,” says Maletz. “If I can do this, anyone can.”
Even in moments when Maletz could tout the personal efforts she has made to support the troops, she doesn’t. Instead, she just says, “I’m beyond grateful” and turns the focus to the veterans who have not yet made the journey to D.C., hoping that her newly elevated platform as a Spirit of Hope recipient brings greater attention to this program.
“If I can use this award to get more veterans on my bus, I’m going to paint the town,” laughed Maletz when asked about her future with Honor Flight.
Who knows, she may just bring another 1,600 veterans to D.C.