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Guest column 6/2/14: Honor Flight needs your support

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By John Stewart

Regarding the Chronicle’s May 19 editorial concerning transport of World War II veterans to Washington by Honor Flight, a program designed to provide honor and respect to these heroes for service to our country:

In support of West Central Florida’s (WCF) Honor Flight program, I have been a guardian on many trips for these heroes. Guardians are volunteers who escort the World War II veteran and must pay for their own flight, ground transportation costs and incidentals for the escorted veteran. I cannot find the words to tell you the range of emotions we share as they realize America sincerely remembers and appreciates the fact they saved the world from oppression of horrific German and Japanese leaders of that era.

Unfortunately, I frequently find many people who know very little about the program, what we do and what support is needed.

Honor Flight of West Central Florida will normally fly from the St. Petersburg airport to Baltimore, Maryland. Approximately two days before flying, we transport guardians and WWII veterans to orientation briefings in St. Petersburg. This trip takes eight hours, and guardians and WWII veterans learn about their itinerary and planned events, are provided special Honor Flight apparel to wear during the trip, receive safety-related information, meet their fellow heroes, etc.

On flight day, our local WWII veterans and guardians depart at 3 a.m. for the St. Petersburg airport, where at 5 a.m. they are processed and provided a free breakfast. At 6:15 a.m. we are airborne, arriving at Baltimore around 8:30 a.m., where we are met by three contracted tour buses for transport into the Washington area. 

Nearly all WWII veterans are placed in wheelchairs when not on the aircraft or bus, because there is a significant amount of walking as they visit the National World War II Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, United States Air Force Memorial, and Lincoln Memorial. That is where we guardians work hard to perform as wheelchair managers while transporting the veterans. Plus, simply loading and unloading 80 wheelchairs from the buses at each stop is a chore in itself!

We depart Washington around 4 p.m. for BWI and are airborne by 7 p.m., arriving back at St. Petersburg at 9:15 p.m., and by the time we process through the airport it is nearly 10:45 p.m. before heading for the long drive back to Citrus County. It has been a long day for veterans and guardians alike. There are other activities that occur on the ground and in the air to honor these heroes, which are surprises that I will not go into here. I can tell you this, however: It is a day guardians, WWII veterans and observers never, ever forget.

Unfortunately, Honor Flight needs your help. You can imagine how much it costs for a chartered aircraft, tour buses, materials, food, etc. The veteran pays nothing and, in fact, we refuse to accept any money from them. 

Guardians pay $400 out of pocket for their ticket and with other incidentals, my personal costs per flight are around $600. But it is worth it to honor these wonderful veterans.

Honor Flight is in dire financial straits from a loss of donations and lack of ground transport. We need your help! Please consider helping by contacting Barbara Mills at 352-422-6236, or go to my website at www.operationwelcomehomeveterans.org to see slides of Honor Flights and how to email us.

We must continue this program and get these heroes to Washington as quickly as possible. Time is running out and our country owes them so much for our freedoms.

God bless America and our veterans.

 

John Stewart, a retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant and Vietnam War veteran, is a member of Operation Welcome Home.