“We can’t all be heroes – some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by.” – Will Rogers
Recently, on a beautiful Saturday in Washington, D.C., I spent a day in the company of heroes. On a mission with Honor Flight Central Florida, I got to act as a guardian for one of 24 honored veterans who were transported to the nation’s capital for a day of touring the memorials dedicated to honoring their sacrifice and service.
Honor Flight, a 501(c)(3) national organization, was born in 2005 out of a desire to honor the Greatest Generation by getting as many surviving WWII veterans as possible to see their World War II Memorial that was opened in 2004. As both declining health and finances were oft-cited reasons that these heroes could not make the trip, Honor Flight began providing the trip as well as daylong accompaniment and care free of charge, first with private pilots and funding and eventually through partnership with commercial providers and air charter services.
As one of Honor Flight’s 140 national hubs, Honor Flight of Central Florida is committed to providing three trips in 2017 for 100 hometown heroes. I had the honor of going on the second of these three trips as a guardian, and it was hands down one of the greatest experiences of my life. From the first class treatment from Southwest and TSA at both Orlando and Baltimore airports to the cordon of active duty military, civilians and children expressing their gratitude for these heroes, it was a thrill to see the 24 veterans, the oldest of whom is 99 years old, basking in the well-deserved adulation from those generations behind them.
As Ed Riordan, the board chairman for Honor Flight Central Florida, stated, “We know the time to applaud the most senior veterans among us is dwindling, and so we believe it’s our duty to see they are thanked in a way that pays them a tribute long overdue. We are immensely proud of that mission and committed to carrying it out.”
Once we arrived and navigated the cordon in Baltimore, our group boarded buses and enjoyed a police motorcycle escort that parted the traffic as we made our way to the National Mall. Upon arrival, we had time to visit and reflect at the various memorials located there. Since the majority of the honored were either veterans of the Korean War or WWII, those two memorials were highlights of the trip. My personal veteran hero, Major (retired) Mel Franzen, is a fighter pilot and retired United Airlines captain. He joined the Air Force in 1953, one year after Korea ended, and was the only veteran on the trip whose sole wartime experience was in Vietnam. It was a deeply moving experience to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with him and help him to find some of his close friends’ names on the wall.
After a group photo at the WWII Memorial, we re-boarded buses and moved on to Arlington National Cemetery, where we watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and finished up the tour at the Women in Service Memorial. Once again, everywhere we went there were those who went out of their way to thank our honored veterans, shake their hands and take pictures.
Once we made it back to the airport in Baltimore, the team at Honor Flight had another great surprise for our veterans. In the days before Skype and satellite phones, the highlight for any deployed military personnel was always “mail call” and receiving correspondence from home. Particularly in WWII, there were times where for several years this was the only connection deployed servicemen and women had. While waiting for our boarding time, Honor Flight conducted a mail call for the group of veterans, where they each received handwritten letters from local supporters and school children, again thanking them for their heroism, service and sacrifice. Said Ed Riordan, ” We owe it to our veterans to recognize that our freedom is not free, and in fact is paid for with the blood and sacrifices of the humble heroes who deserve to be honored for it.”
Upon returning to Orlando, we were greeted again by yet another crowd, this time with bagpipes playing patriotic music, and finished up the evening on a high note, returning each veteran safe and sound to their families.
Since the Honor Flight Network was founded in 2005, the national hubs have collectively provided Honor Flights for more than 180,000 veterans. Honor Flight Central Florida is one of these hubs and will have provided more than 800 veterans with free Honor Flights by the close of 2017. The next flight is scheduled for September 16.
To view the rest of the photos from this mission visit the online gallery.
To donate to this 501(c)(3) all-volunteer organization. they can be reached at:
Honor Flight Central Florida
1170 Tree Swallow Drive #321
Winter Springs, FL 32708