Sixty-one military veterans and their guardians completed the 41st Villages Honor Flight mission to Washington D.C., on Thursday.
These veterans were treated to a performance by the U.S. Air Force Drill Team and observed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery as part of their whirlwind honor tour.
Carol Erdrich, wife of the late founder of Villages Honor Flight, Mark Erdrich, joined the veterans as a guest of honor. Mark Erdrich, who died unexpectedly in February, brought the Honor Flight concept to The Villages, allowing veterans, mostly from the World War II and Korean eras, to make this single-day trip to key war memorials in the nation’s capital. A welcoming crowd lingered until 1:40 a.m. Friday as the veterans returned via Orlando International Airport to American League Post 347 in Lady Lake, roughly an hour behind schedule because of mechanical issues upon arrival in Orlando.
The veterans’ bus caravan arrived with a police and Village Nomad motorcycle escort underneath a towering arch of water sprayed from District Public Safety Department’s Engine 41.
Slowly, many on wobbly legs, veterans and their guardians filed off the buses and took their places in numbered chairs set in a large U shape. On each chair, a handmade quilt donated by volunteers, awaited their arrival.
World War II veteran Roger Marchand stepped off the bus first, with an ear-to-ear smile for the large crowd of well-wishers who cheered, waved flags and welcome-home signs.
“It was just fantastic,” he said. “All of it. Everything.”
The Village of Piedmont resident, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, said everybody was just so nice, but it was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery that touched him the most.
His guardian for the day, Paula Boulette, of the Village El Cortez , said it was a great honor to spend the day with Marchand. She comes from a long line of Navy veterans and said it was her time to give back.
One of the next few to step off the bus was Frank Giaccone, a Navy Korean War veteran of the Village of Summerhill who served aboard the USS Everglades, DD24, a destroyer tender out of Norfolk, Virginia.
“It was wonderful; just outstanding,” Giaccone said. “You couldn’t ask for something better.”
Each flight follows the same general schedule, flying to Baltimore, traveling in buses escorted by park rangers to each of the major stops on the tour, but each flight has several surprise elements that are kept secret to make it more exciting. These are in addition to spontaneous applause and adoration from random individuals and groups along the way who become part of the celebration in serendipitous events that take on a life of their own.
In her comments during the final moments of the ceremony, flight director Liza Walters detailed the many exciting aspects of the day’s surprise events.
She said this year’s first big surprise was a performance by the U.S. Air Force Drill Team and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery that many said was their favorite.
“The drill team’s performance was pretty scary to me with all of those flashing swords and bayonets, but it was very impressive,” she said.
She said the highlight of everyone’s day was their escort by the park police who parted traffic like Moses parted the Red Sea.
“There is no way we could do this trip without them,” she said. “We went through every red light in Washington and down several streets in the wrong lane.”
Korean veteran Chuck Fulcher, a member of Sumter Place’s America’s Veterans Group, was assisted by guardian Kathy Hempel, of the Village Hacienda. This was her 11th Honor Flight as a guardian.
“We spent the day running on adrenaline,” she said. “It was all so good with the surprises they had for us.”
Carmine Micena, of the Village of Lake Deaton , served in the Pacific with the Navy SeaBees during World War II. He spoke in a whisper, having recently suffered a stroke.
“Being there with my comrades made it special,” he said.
John Bradley is one of the few veterans who served in World War II, Korea and the Vietnam War. Bradley was a gunner in a B-24 bomber crew and was shot down during a bombing run over Germany. He spent 14 months in a prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag Luft 1.
“I wasn’t wounded,” he said. “But I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
Bradley, who lives in Ocala, said he had a great time but the best part of his day was getting back home.
For Vietnam War veteran Bill McPeek, the day was a wonderful experience that came together in one poignant moment as he knelt down for a butterfly kiss from his 2 1/2-year-old great-granddaughter, Whitley Martin.
She came down with his granddaughter, Mallory Martin, and her husband, Levi, to see her grandfather’s great adventure. Following the ceremony, they are leaving on a 16-hour drive back to Spencer, Indiana.
“He was so excited about this trip,” she said. “I don’t think he slept a wink the night before.”
When Margie Howd finally got to greet her husband, Jim, with a kiss, both were equally excited about the experience. Howd, a Vietnam veteran, said he couldn’t pick a best part because it was all so good.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I mean the whole thing was unbelievable. I have never seen people be so kind and considerate as they were for us. It made me cry.”
As the ceremonies ended, she took him by the hand as many others did, walking slowly to their cars, sharing their experiences, thankful to be together again, far from the wars that tear people’s lives apart.
Frank Ross is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367 or firstname.lastname@example.org.