York College father-and-son team dedicated to honoring military veterans
The motorcyclists ride in pairs, the American flags hanging off the back of their bikes whipping in the wind as they lead two large buses down Interstate 83.
Just before Pennsylvania stops and Maryland begins, the bikers line the side of the road, saluting the men and women inside the buses.
They are Northeastern High School’s Honor Buses, filled with veterans and bound for the war memorials in D.C. and Virginia.
For some, it’s the welcome home parade they never got.
A family gives back
Duane Swartz, a ’92 York College of Pennsylvania grad, started the program in 2011. The Northeastern High School social studies teacher heard about a similar program in Mechanicsburg and felt compelled to bring it to York.
Duane’s father had served in World War II, but died in 1990.
“I can’t take my own father to the World War II Memorial,” he says, “but I can take someone else’s.”
Every year since the program began, he’s organized a spring and a fall trip to honor those who’ve served. His son, Jacob, has been there volunteering for almost all of them.
Now a junior at York College of Pennsylvania, Jacob started helping on the trips when he was 15.
That first trip was a blur. When he got home at the end, exhausted, he remembers thinking it was the most amazing experience of his life.
“That first trip definitely changed my perspective on veterans and why we need to be the ones giving them the respect they deserve,” he says.
A day devoted to their service
The entire day is dedicated to the veterans, thanking them for their service. Student and adult volunteers with the program, called guardians, are there to ensure the safety and comfort of the veterans.
For Jacob, it’s been a privilege to be able to hear the stories of the servicemen and women and to do his part to say thank you.
“It’s an entire day devoted to their service,” he says. “It’s their day, and we are very lucky to be a part of it.”
There are often emotional moments, like when veterans find names they know on a memorial. But there’s also an easy camaraderie among the veterans, who swap stories or catch up with old friends.
When they’re out touring the memorials, people stop the group to say thank you and shake the veterans’ hands. And if they start organizing for a group picture, forget it. Strangers stop to watch and take their own pictures.
“It’s almost like these guys are rock stars,” Duane says.
That kind of support from the public is exactly what Jacob thinks the veterans deserve.
It’s the recognition and celebration and praise that they deserve for putting their lives on the line for our freedom, Jacob says.
A lasting impact
For some, this trip is an opportunity to see the memorials dedicated to their service. For others, it’s a chance to heal old wounds.
A few years ago, Duane got a call from the wife of a man who’d been a part of the Honor Bus trip in 2015. The woman told Duane that her husband, a Vietnam veteran, had never talked about the war before the trip. After it though, he’d started to open up and talk about his experience. It changed his life.
Shortly before he died of cancer, the man told his wife he wanted to be buried in his Honor Bus T-shirt.
That phone call has stuck with Duane. That one day meant so much to that man that he wanted to be buried in that shirt. It only furthered Duane’s belief in the importance of the program.
“Just imagine the impact this is having for some,” he says.
Continuing the legacy
Jacob has followed in his father’s footsteps: he’s devoted to thanking veterans through the Honor Bus, he’s a year from graduating from York College, his father’s alma mater, and he’s switched his major to Secondary Education Social Studies — just like his father.
“I must have done something right to set an example,” Duane says.
Duane credits a York College professor for giving him advice when he was in school that he continues to live by.
Don’t just take a paycheck.
To Duane, that means that a teacher isn’t just there to stand in front of a classroom.
“You become part of that community,” he says.
With the Honor Bus, that’s exactly what he’s doing. And so is his son.