Female Honor Flight awaits an all-clear

Barbara J. McGuire, left, of the Village of Tall Trees, and Sue Roper, of the Village of Bonita, both members of the Tri-County Women Veterans, will take part in the all-women’s Honor Flight.

Habitat for Humanity is credited with popularizing the term “sweat equity” — the idea that those who lack means make up for that with labor and love to obtain what they really want, housing. Last year, the members of the Tri-County Women Veterans incorporated the concept to claim something both unique to them but also universal to a large number of women. For nine months last year, the group participated in or conducted dozens of events. Members set up the sites, sold tickets, took care of guests and cleaned up afterward. They did so in order to take the first Honor Flight from Florida that will be exclusively for women military veterans. And their efforts paid off.

Through activities such as martini tastings, bingo games, auctions, “trivia night” contests, 50-50 chance drawings, a gala, a USO tribute and a pancake breakfast., they raised $100,000 — or $30,000 more than a trip with Villages Honor Flight costs.

“It was incredible and unbelievable to do what we did, especially during the pandemic and no one got sick,” said Sue Roper, president of the Tri-County Women Veterans and a retired U.S. Navy veteran.

“I just so overwhelmingly appreciated the support, and I know everybody’s excited (to go), Roper said.”

The trip, however, is not just to provide women vets from The Villages a daylong junket to Washington, D.C.

Rather, say Roper and others who plan to go on the flight, the idea is to showcase representatives of the estimated 3 million women who served in defense of our nation since its inception.    

 “It’s about the perception. It’s about the education. It’s about the comfort level and the camaraderie. That’s why I’m excited about it,” said Joan Suelter, a U.S. Navy veteran and first vice commander of American Legion Post 347 in Lady Lake.

“To see an all-women’s flight, I think it would be so heart-warming for the participants. Sometimes society loses sight that women veterans have made a huge contribution.”

Among those who contributed was Barbara McGuire, a resident of the Village of Tall Trees.

Sixty years ago, she worked in an Indiana factory pressing metal caps for bottles of Coca-Cola and Gerber baby food.

Then, she said, two women co-workers — both veterans, one each from the Navy and the Coast Guard — encouraged and inspired her to leave the factory and enlist in the Navy. She eventually served in Pensacola for three years, working with the military’s nascent data-processing equipment.

That service prepared McGuire for a career in data processing with Hillsborough County that spanned 32 years. And she’s eager to take this trip to recall that time in the Navy, and share that with her “sisters.”

“I think it’s a fabulous opportunity for all of us — to meet new veterans and to see the monuments,” McGuire said.

Given the support they rendered, Roper believes her group successfully conveyed how significant this trip would be for McGuire and the other participants.

“I think they saw it as something unique and very special, and something to elevate women vets,” she said.

A Ground-Breaking Journey Years in the Making

Because of COVID-19 restrictions and other scheduling requirements — Honor Flight does not travel when Washington is engulfed in its hottest or coldest times of the year — the flight is not expected to happen until May 2022,, organizers said.

Yet the journey began three years ago, recalled Roper, when a representative from Villages Honor Flight  spoke to the Tri-County veterans.

The seed for an all-women’s flight was planted thereafter, she said.

But there was an issue. Villages Honor Flight was reluctant to designate one of its regularly planned flights solely for women and bump the aging male vets queued up for their turn.

Honor Flight, which has not flown since November 2019  because of COVID-19, has about 570 veterans on its waiting list, according to Liza Walters,  Honor Flight’s vice president for operations.

And based on past experience, only one or two of those travelers would be women.

So, Honor Flight offered Tri-County an alternative: Raise money to book your own flight and the group would add a women-only trip.

Tri-County went above and beyond.

Beginning in January 2020,  and despite COVID-19 suffocating opportunities for revenue-generating activities, Tri-County and Villagers for Veterans, which partnered with Roper’s group in the project, spent nine months working to come up with the cash.

In October, they presented Honor Flight $100,000 to cover the cost of the trip, including chartering a plane. That’s $30,000 more than the typical Honor Flight costs.

Roper said she was fairly confident the group would get there; they had raised $25,000 by the end of February. She expected to announce the flight was covered by June.

But the pandemic intervened. And so crossing the finish line was delayed until October.

“It was going great, and it did go great, even though we weren’t able to do all the things we wanted to do,” said Roper.

Marie Bogdonoff, founder and chairwoman of Villagers for Veterans, said the results likely surprised some people familiar with Tri-County’s drive.

“They said the only way we could go was if we paid for the whole flight so it wouldn’t interfere with other flights,” she said. “I don’t think they thought we could raise it, but we raised it in less than a year, even though we were limited in what we could do because of COVID.”

Villagers for Veterans provided the fundraising expertise and, as a chartered nonprofit group, the legal mechanism for collecting and banking the money.

Tri-County took care of the rest, by providing the labor.

In addition to the monthslong sweat equity that went into making the flight happen, Tri-County also rustled up sponsors for many of its activities and made direct appeals for donations.

Ultimately, it gathered the resources to take 120 women to Washington, said Roper.

She envisions 60 participants aided by 60 escorts. 

But every aspect of the flight, including the pilots, if that can be worked out, will be for women veterans and handled by women veterans.

And the plane is almost full, Roper added. In the first month after the money was in place, 100  women signed up to go.

“It’s been amazing,” Roper said of the response.

Getting Overdue Recognition and Respect

The registry provides a sharp contrast to the typical Honor Flight, which, organizers say, hosts only one or two women with a plane full of men.

“We’d love to have more women, but they just don’t apply. I don’t know why,” said Walters.

Roper and others who plan to go said that’s one reason women need their own Honor Flight experience.

“It’s about our shared camaraderie,” Roper said. “It’s different in the military for women than men. Women vets like to be with other women vets, and share our unique experience as veterans.”

Bogdonoff agreed that it is imperative to recognize the efforts of women who have served.

“Women vets take a back seat year after year,” she said. “They don’t get the recognition and respect they deserve — and a lot of them are dying.”

Suelter said she’s been bidding farewell and welcoming home Honor Flight participants for seven years. And what strikes her is the paucity of women on each one.

“It warms my heart (to see those who go) but it’s not enough of a display of the women who served,” she said.

Suelter said she signed up for the flight to help change that, whether she goes as a participant or if she’s asked to do escort duty, as could likely happen for many of the younger women aboard the plane.

Military veterans make up 7.5% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Women veterans make up 10% of veterans, but only 1.5% of women are veterans.

Still, that’s a sizable portion of the population. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that there are about 2 million  living women veterans.

Lisa Mundey,  a military history professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, noted that only relatively recently has their contribution to America’s national defense been recognized.

According to Mundey, after World War II, federal law capped women at just 2% of the nation’s total military force. These restrictions remained until the all-volunteer force was established in the 1970s.

Regardless of the era, Mundey said, a social stigma often became attached to their service.

“Mainstream American culture pushed women toward more ‘feminine’ occupations,” she said.

Even after the all-volunteer force was created, female troops were limited in what jobs they could do. The Department of Defense finally opened all military jobs to women in 2013 — years after they spent time in Middle East wars being shot at and attacked by roadside bombs and rockets, Mundey observed.

“It took the Defense Department quite some time to catch up to reality on the ground,” Mundey said. “Because women make up less than 15% of the military force, their issues are often overlooked and recognition has not always been given.”

Walters said Honor Flight will attempt to address that with this trip.

For instance, the plan right now includes a visit to the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, which is the nation’s only major national memorial to honor all women who served our nation in uniform, but which is not normally on the Honor Flight itinerary.

The memorial encompasses more than 8,000 donations, including photographs, documents, clothing, artifacts, and audiovisual material that represents all eras and services, according to its website. The collection also contains more than 1,000 oral history narratives and a research library with more than 1,000 books by and about military women.

Still, they must wait more than a year before they can absorb the history they helped create.

The Honor Flight Network, the national parent nonprofit over the state hubs, has suspended trips to Washington until at least June 30 because of COVID, according to its website.

While the future seems dicey, if the women’s flight can take off in May 2022, as they hope, it would coincide with the 10th anniversary of the inaugural Villages Honor Flight trip.

Staff Writer Bill Thompson can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or william.thompson@thevillagesmedia.com.