The fictional Korean War Army nurse Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan of the 1970s series “M*A*S*H” may be the most-recognized female soldier in television history.
But Loretta Swit, the actress who made Houlihan famous, is excited about spending time with the real-life women who have served in combat zones around the world.
Early Monday, she’ll catch a pre-dawn flight at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield along with 135 female Nebraska veterans who will fly to Washington, D.C., on Patriotic Productions’ latest, and last, of what organizers are calling “Flights of Honor.”
“These women are just phenomenal,” Swit said last week in a telephone interview from her home in New York. “I’m an actor. That’s what I do. But I’m so proud to be associated with their courage, their stamina — these heroes.”
Swit will meet with the veterans individually Sunday afternoon at the Embassy Suites La Vista, and speak at the pre-flight dinner. She’ll rise with the women and their escorts and fly from Eppley with them on a chartered Sun Country jet — which will have a crew of female pilots and flight attendants, said Bill Williams, co-organizer of the trip with his wife, Evonne.
She will remain with the veterans all morning as they are greeted at Reagan National Airport in Washington and then visit the Marine Corps War Memorial — a giant sculpture of the iconic flag-raising at Iwo Jima, in Arlington, Virginia.
Swit will also join them at Arlington National Cemetery as they visit the Kennedy gravesite, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and Section 60, the burial site for many service members who have died in the post-9/11 wars. They’ll pose for a group photo at the Women in Military Service for America monument, and eat lunch with a group of American Heritage girls, a Christian-based organization similar to the Girl Scouts.
“We’re so excited she decided she wanted to spend the morning (with the veterans),” Bill Williams said.
Swit, 80, still acts in theater and has been active for decades as an animal-rights activist. She’s also an accomplished watercolor artist who last year released “SwitHeart: The Watercolour Artistry & Animal Activism of Loretta Swit,” which features her paintings, photographs and anecdotes about animals she has known or rescued. The proceeds are donated to charities that work to end the suffering of animals.
Her charity work includes helping to reunite military working dogs overseas with their former handlers in the U.S. She has helped to bring together 33 such teams.
Since her “M*A*S*H” debut in 1972, she has also been bound to the military, and especially military women. She still is asked to appear in Veterans Day and Armed Forces Day parades.
“This is kind of a given in my life, the way performing is, just like my animal activism and my painting,” Swit said.
Swit twice won Emmy awards for her portrayal of Houlihan, the most prominent female character in the ensemble cast of one of the most popular shows on television.
“Margaret was amazing. She was a feminist before the word was coined. She was battling to get off the margins,” Swit said. “My character was very brash, very military oriented. She was the best damn head nurse in Korea.”
She is touched when she sometimes receives letters from women who tell her Margaret Houlihan inspired them to become a military nurse. And she notes that all of her character’s real-life counterparts made a choice to go into combat zones.
“I’m so proud of my gender,” Swit said. “They volunteered in the worst possible circumstances ... I love to talk about that, rave about that.”
The show began before the end of the Vietnam War, at a time when the military wasn’t held in high regard. The likable doctors and nurses of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital arguably played a key role in rehabilitating the image of the military, which is now one of America’s most-esteemed institutions.
“M*A*S*H” ended its 11-year-run in 1983, with the emotional “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” episode that saw the war end and the soldiers go home. More than 100 million people watched, by far the most ever to watch an episode of a scripted series.
Like the MASH units, the run of Nebraska “Flights of Honor” will end with this one, the Williamses say. Since 2008, they have escorted some 3,500 veterans to Washington, D.C. They plan to publish a coffee-table book with photos from all of the flights.
On Monday afternoon, the female veterans will visit the Air Force, World War II, Korean War and Lincoln memorials, and the Vietnam Wall. After a meal, they’ll fly home for an 8:35 p.m. return to Eppley — and what Bill and Evonne Williams hope will be a rousing welcome home. The public is invited.
No one is more excited about the tribute than the woman who played television’s most famous fictional Army nurse.
“It’s something we all have a right to be proud of,” Swit said. “And I get to stand up and say, “You guys are great!’”