From his dream to uniquely honor Villagers who served in America’s military, Mark Erdrich, who passed away on Feb. 12, had played a significant role in the life of The Villages.
On Thursday, following the Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans ceremony at the Villages Veterans Memorial Park, those who lives were impacted by his vision and leadership paid him special tribute during a memorial service and to recognize their guest of honor, Mark’s wife Caroline.
“Today, we plant an Oak Tree in Mark’s honor because that is what he wanted,” said Gary Kadow, an Honor Flight past chairman. “Mark once told me that he identified with Oaks. Both touch people in different ways, he felt, and, as he had hoped, have roots that spread everywhere.”
Then Caroline thanked everyone for the words of appreciation and attending the ceremony.
“I have sprinkled some of Mark’s ashes around his favorite Oak Tree in South Carolina. Now, I do the same around this special memorial,” she said. “Ashes are composed of calcium phosphate which is very beneficial to these trees and are absorbed into the roots. Mark will remain here forever.”
She then was presented an American flag, by Richard McClintock, representing the Honor Flight Hub, “on behalf of the President of the United States.”
“Once Mark put his mind to something, nothing would get in his way,” recalled Liza Walters, Honor Flight vice president. “In 2011, with a small group of other military enthusiasts, Mark developed The Villages-based Honor Flight that would bring World War II veterans to Washington D.C. and tour the World War II Memorial and other sites in the nation’s capital. Many veterans had the opportunity to visit the monument, built in 2004 on the National Mall, which was dedicated to their service.
A few months later, on May 26, 2012, the first group of veterans and their escorts were treated to a round-trip flight and a full day of sightseeing – compliments of the Honor Flight’s volunteers and donors.
Since then on some 30 flights, with more than 1,000 Villagers, whether they served during World War II or during the Korean or Vietnam wars, have enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Honor Flights began near Dayton Ohio, in 2005, and has grown to some ‘hubs’ throughout the United States,” explained Joe Hambright, the Villages’ Honor Flight chairman of the board. “In addition to spearheading the Village’s efforts, Mark took the concept one step further and developed the country’s first ‘flightless’ program for veterans too frail to make the arduous 22-hour journey.”
Thanks to Erdich, The Villages’ Honor Flight also was the first organization to conduct a “flightless” program for veterans confined in a local prison.
“Veterans make the trip to Washington, at no cost to them, and are escorted, on a one-on-one basis, by volunteers who make a ‘donation for the honor to participate,’” Hambright continued. “In addition, there some other 20 volunteers – such as tour directors, medical staff and photographers – who accompany the group. On average, there are 140 people on each flight.”
Over the past five years, the Honor Flight has raised some $1 million to underwrite these travel and administrative expenses.
“The Honor Flight’s accomplishments are all due to Mark – a veteran himself. He took his considerable skills as an entrepreneur and his laser focus to give direction to others that built this organization. Then, with the right people in place, he gave them free reign to continue,” continued Hambright. “He was the brightest man I have ever known.”