PHELPS — The memory of his homeland torn apart from years of war — split in two as the result of World War II — are indelible for Heinz Mohr, a 91-year-old World War II veteran now living in Phelps.
Mohr grew up in Germany, moved to the United States while still in school, then returned to his homeland as one of the deadliest conflicts in history came to a close to serve as an investigator and interpreter with the U.S. Air Force.
Those long-ago memories began to resurface as he embarked on a journey to New Orleans with his great-granddaughter, Halle Burgess, and 43 of her classmates at Midlakes High School for a trip to the National World War II Museum.
“I am amazed that this is even taking place,” Mohr said about the trip, adding that what he did in the military was simply his duty and “nothing special.” “I tried to keep the peace between the two factions as the war just ended.”
Mohr was stationed out of Fort Smith, Ark., and served for about three years, receiving a Letter of Commendation for his service while in Germany.
“Hearing about it from someone who has been through it will make it easier to learn more about it,” said Burgess, who is a junior at the Midlakes. “This is really cool with him going with me.”
The Soaring Valor trip was made possible through a charitable effort by the Gary Sinise Foundation and American Airlines. It included nearly 50 veterans from Upstate New York.
A send-off was held Wednesday morning at the Greater Rochester International Airport, and featured a performance by 96-year-old Peter Dupre, a World War II veteran who has become famous for his harmonica playing. Officials from American Airlines, Honor Flight Rochester, the Soaring Valor program through Sinise’s foundation, and many others attended the send-off as well.
Administrators at Midlakes first learned during the summer that the Gary Sinise Foundation had selected the school for the all-expenses-paid educational trip honoring WWII veterans. Students were then selected after writing letters to school administrators and going through an interview process.
Many of students have strong backgrounds in academics, community service, and athletics. Each was paired with a World War II veteran and a caregiver for the trip, which is highlighted by a visit to the National World War II Museum in downtown New Orleans today. The veterans, students and their guardians and chaperones fly home Friday.
Burgess, for example, plays volleyball and softball, was involved in Youth to Youth and student council, and has volunteered for a variety of local organizations.
Sinise’s foundation has flown more than 200 students and approximately 1,100 veterans from across the country to the Crescent City, according to foundation’s website. Sinise, of course, played the role of Lt. Dan in the wildly popular “Forrest Gump” movie.
The actor started the foundation after meeting an American serviceman severely injured during a bomb blast in Iraq.
The foundation has become known for passing down the lessons and memories from previous conflicts to younger generations, but the trips also do something just as important for the veterans, said Nick Vervella, a U.S. Army veteran now living in East Rochester who spoke to a gathering of roughly 150 people at Wednesday’s send-off.
“The real benefit of what is done for us is … how it invigorates our psyche, our spirits, our self, our minds, emotions, and our energy,” he said. “These trips do what medications can’t do. They ignite our feelings and bring a fresh perspective to our lives. It’s like falling in love, and what a great feeling that is or was.”