Vietnam veteran Billie Harbison drove more than two hours Wednesday to The Villages from Jacksonville to participate in Villages Honor Flight Mission 48. The lengthy car ride was necessary as there is no Honor Flight hub in the city in North Florida and Harbison wanted to take the special trip to Washington, D.C., to observe the memorials and monuments with her fellow veterans. She said she signed up to go seven years ago and forgot about it until she got the call a few weeks ago telling her it was time. “I’m just thrilled to death,” Harbison said. “Today was just unbelievable. I was so moved by the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
Villages Honor Flight’s final mission of the season arrived right on time Wednesday evening after a day full of sightseeing in the nation’s capital. Forty-one veterans and an equal number of guardians made the trip and returned to American Legion Post 347 following a long line of Village Nomads motorcycle escorts with big smiles on their weary faces.
Although each flight is similar in many ways, every one has certain elements that make it stand out.
For Mission 48, each veteran received a photo and a personalized letter from President Donald Trump, making this the first time a president has taken time to write a letter to members of Villages Honor Flight.
Another unique aspect of the mission was an enthusiastic new face from Seattle, welcoming veterans home.
Shanda Taylor Boyd came to the community as part of the Gary Sinise & the Lt. Dan Band entourage for Sunday’s concert and stayed for the Honor Flight because she had never had the experience.
Boyd was medically discharged from the Army after a serious car crash in 2004. While driving home from her shift at Madigan Army Hospital at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, she was blindsided and left with a traumatic brain injury. Tears filled her eyes as she explained that for 12 years she had numerous thoughts of suicide until her medical issues were properly diagnosed and treated. Now she’s working to help stem the alarming rate of suicides among veterans. She has a joy for life and shared hugs with many veterans.
“(Honor Flight) is an amazing event for veterans,” Boyd said. “I can’t wait to share this experience with other veterans.”
Rob Hempel, flight director and vice president of operations for Villages Honor Flight, explained another unique aspect of this flight is the honor that is paid to veterans who have passed away before they were able to make an Honor Flight. The event, called Flags of Our Heroes, involves a portrait of each veteran taken to the memorial they would have visited. A photo is taken at the memorial and is presented to the veteran’s family.
Hempel read the names of the 30 veterans who were honored in this manner, emphasizing the importance and timeliness of the flights.
After the list was read, Liza Walters , vice president of special events and projects for Villages Honor Flight, recited the poem of remembrance followed by the bugler playing “Taps.”
After the traditional “sound off” of all veterans, each veteran was introduced one at a time, with their branch of service and the war or era they served in.
Following the announcements, families came flooding in to hug their loved ones and give them another meaningful welcome home.
Bob Kiley, the legion commander, was among the throng of well-wishers waiting for the veterans’ return. He stood at the head of the line as veterans stepped down from the lead bus, shook each hand and repeated, “Welcome home, brother.”
In the crowd, Village of Pine Hills resident Chris Hackman, held a sign that read, “We came here for you because you were there for us.” She was there to greet her neighbor, veteran Dick Purcell.
Bob Gowell, of the Village of Lake Deaton, was another face in the crowd. He has made two flights as a guardian, but this time he drove Dee D’amico, the wife of a veteran who waited for her husband, Vito.
“Every time I see the buses pull in I get a little teary-eyed,” Gowell said. “It’s just an emotional experience for me.”
Bill Crawford was one of the first veterans off the bus when the mission arrived at the post. The Village of Glenbrook resident and his guardian attracted a lot of attention with their headbands of blinking lights.
And World War II veteran Norma Jean Bailey, of the Village of Fernandina, looked exhausted as she described her trip as wonderful.
Ed Franks, 97, is a World War II veteran who served from 1942-46 as a processing officer for new recruits being inducted into the Navy. The most significant part of the day for the Oxford resident was visiting the Guam section of the World War II Memorial because he lost his brother in the fighting to retake the island.
“(Today) was a wonderful day,” Franks said. “Strenuous but wonderful.”
Another World War II veteran, Herb Steele, of Altoona, was an Army recruiter who also served in Korea.
“The best thing for me today was shaking hands with all of the people who came up to say thank you for your service,” Steele said. “That was something else.”
Staff writer Frank Ross can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367 or email@example.com.