“They told me this is the most mobile group of veterans Honor Flight has ever had,” American Legion post commander, Tim Tierney, said, as members of his post prepared a receiving line to welcome 25 World War II veterans and their guardians back to Lady Lake. A large crowd of area residents, about a dozen clowns, a contingent of University of Florida Naval Cadets, and many members of local uniformed services, waved American flags and cheered to give the veterans a warm welcome home from their nearly 24-hour Honor Flight to our nation’s capital.
Beginning at about 9 p,m., Ralph DiNome and Sue Schuler entertained a small crowd of about 100 people. Dance Fusion, The Village Cheerleaders, with their necklaces flashing red, white and blue, and The Villages Twirlers and Drum Corps. with lighted batons and drumsticks, were all out in force as the size of the crowd gradually grew. At about 11:40 p.m., right on time, with the temperature markedly cooler — sirens blared, about fifty Nomads’ motorcycles roared, and finally the veterans’ Lamers bus appeared.
Two firetrucks at the entrance to the post shot their water cannons to create a welcoming arch, while a third fire truck used their scene-illuminating system to light up the destination. Upon alighting from the coach, the World War II veterans were surprised to see the American Legion honor guard plus hundreds of cheering, flag-waving people.
“We do our best to honor these men, and give them a much better welcome than most of them had when they came home from the war,” volunteer Lynn Neville said. Lynn’s ‘s husband, Tom, served as a guardian on the very first Honor Flight in 2012 — and they have been coming out to greet every flight since then. “It just feels good to do this,” Neville said — “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
“I spoke with my husband by phone earlier today, and he was having a grand time,” Marilyn Horton, 83, said of her husband of 63 years, Richard, a World War II Navy veteran, 87. “My son, grandson and daughter-in-law all met him up there and took pictures. My grandson lives in Washington D.C., and my son and his wife live in South Carolina.” A few minutes later, a smiling, spry Horton stepped down from the bus to a hero’s welcome.
Honor Flight facilitator, Joe Hambright, joked “Welcome home weary, tired, crumbling people — it’s been a long, hard day — and that’s enough about the guardians! Welcome home, veterans, a grateful citizenry awaits you.” The veterans had toured Washington, D.C., visited the myriad military memorials and enjoyed a hearty lunch. The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was particularly meaningful for the group.
Another U.S. Navy veteran, from Village de la Vista East, Alto Williams, 89, waved an American flag and gingerly stepped off the bus, towing his guardian, Kathy Hempel, behind him. Alto’s wife, Alma, was happy to welcome them home. “I couldn’t believe it when he told me,” Hempel said, “this was his very first time on an airplane.”
Phyllis Kurz from Leesburg, 90, a U.S. Navy WAVE, said she felt a little tired, but enjoyed her day with guardian, Liza Walters, of Duval Village. “This is a day I will never forget,” Kurz said. “Ms. Kurz enlisted in the service when she was nineteen,” Walters revealed.”
Over and over, 22 more times, a similar scenario played out, with only one returning veteran using a wheelchair. At precisely midnight, taps were played to honor the fallen. “Six short weeks ago, none of these people knew each other,” Erdrich said with emotion. “Just watching them today, you can tell they are not strangers any more. Some good relationships have formed, and they enjoy each other’s company.”