Cheers, applause and appreciative chants of “Welcome home” rang out early Thursday morning as 60 veterans of days gone by returned home from Washington, D.C.
The group, representing all walks of military life, rolled into American Legion Post 347 off Rolling Acres Road shortly after 1 a.m. after spending the day in our nation’s capital, compliments of Villages Honor Flight.
It was a day of mixed emotions as the veterans visited the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial, as well as taking a bus tour through the city.
Some, no doubt, were remembering friends who made the ultimate sacrifice and didn’t come home from various conflicts. Others were just in awe as they took in the magnitude of the memorials dedicated to them. And some were very quiet as they reflected on what it meant to be a part of something they never dreamed could happen.
“This is unbelievable,” a wide-eyed Bob Moreau said after disembarking from one of three buses to plenty of handshakes and pats on the back. “It’s been like this all day. Every time we turned around, there was another crowd of people.”
Bob’s wife, Mary, was beaming as she bent over and kissed her husband of 57 years.
“I’m proud of him and I’m very happy he’s able to do this,” she said. “It’s very important.”
Bob, a Navy veteran, also was quick to thank his guardian, Villager Gail Meloni, who was by his side the entire day.
“These guardians are just unbelievable,” the resident of Plantation at Leesburg said. “They don’t let you do anything. I kept getting her in trouble because I wanted to carry stuff and she wouldn’t let me.”
Meloni, said she felt lucky to be able to escort such a “real gentleman” as they experienced a day together neither will soon forget.
“It meant the world to me,” said the Village of Santiago resident. “I was so honored and proud to have been selected. We had a wonderful day and it was just thrilling.”
Betty MacDuff, whose husband Mac made the trip, said it’s nice to see veterans getting the respect they deserve.
“I don’t think we do enough for our veterans,” said the resident of the American House in Wildwood. “So for them to be able to go to Washington and see their monuments, especially the World War II Monument, it gives them something to look at that reflects on their service. Some of them wouldn’t be able to go, otherwise.”
Mac MacDuff said he and his fellow veterans were thrilled to see more than 200 people waiting for them in the wee hours of the morning when they returned home.
“It was really surprising,” the Army veteran said. “First we saw all the lights when we came (down County Road 466). Then you come around and you see all the people. It’s really neat.”
Air Force veteran Marie MacDonald, who recently moved from Summerfield to Ormond Beach, said she was thinking about fellow veterans who lost their lives in the name of protecting the freedoms Americans hold so dearly.
“War is the most devastating thing, for those that live and those that don’t,” she said. “But as far as I’m concerned, they are the ones that really deserve the recognition.”
As for the entire Honor Flight experience, MacDonald said she wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“It’s marvelous, one of the finest things that I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I think every single veteran coming home should have this kind of thing. Not just taking them to D.C., because a lot of them aren’t ready. But they should be welcomed home with this kind of energy and consideration for what they’ve done.”
For flight director Barb Cooksey, of the Village of Polo Ridge, Wednesday’s trip – the 39th put on by Villages Honor Flight – was something special.
“These veterans are awesome,” said Cooksey, who has been involved with Honor Flight since the summer of 2013. “They don’t think they deserve anything. And when we take them up there and the public just stops and applauds. It’s just amazing.
Cooksey said every one of the veterans involved with the trip is a hero.
“They don’t think they are,” she said, “But they allow us to live in the country that we have today.”