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The Villages
Wednesday, November 29, 2023

If you haven’t seen an Honor Flight homecoming ceremony, you’re missing something special

If you’ve never been at American Legion Post 347 when an Honor Flight returns from a trip to Washington, D.C., let us be the first to encourage you to do so.

Because what you’ll see is a group of American heroes who have given many years of their lives to protect the freedoms we all hold so dearly. They and their families have made countless sacrifices we’ll never know about. And many of them were put in horrific situations when they were so young and innocent that it was hard to comprehend what was happening – while they were thousands of miles from home.

Veterans traveling on Villages Honor Flight No. 39 visit the World War II Memorial this past Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

If you’re not familiar with Honor Flight, it’s a national network with a simple but noble mission – transport America’s veterans at no cost to them to our nation’s capital to visit war memorials honoring those who served and those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Locally, Villages Honor Flight serves Lake, Sumter, Marion, Citrus and Hernando counties. Our chapter ranks among the best and most respected of all the organizations across the country. And it boasts a large group of dedicated volunteers who work as a team to make sure area veterans get the opportunity to experience the trip of a lifetime.

Gary Gerke and Phil Crouthamel, of American Legion Post 347’s Honor Guard.

Those who attend Honor Flight homecomings have learned a thing or two about the folks who take these trips. For instance, veterans in their seventies, eighties and nineties won’t act their age. They won’t whine about being awake 24 hours. And not a one will complain about traveling 2,000 miles on two airplanes and several different buses.

Honor Flight volunteer Eileen Bennehoff, of the Village of Duval, was busy handing out flags before flight No. 39’s veterans returned home.

That said, if you make the wise decision to come out and welcome Honor Flight veterans home, you’ll observe proud men and women stepping off buses with a renewed spring in their step. You’ll see tears of joy running down the cheeks of people who define toughness. And you’ll witness plenty of smiles and looks of amazement on the faces of veterans as several hundred people applaud, pat them on the back and yell “Welcome home!”

Honor Flight volunteer John Peters, himself a veteran with 40 years of military experience between the Air Force and Navy, is quick to point out that one of the most important aspects of the Honor Flight experience is when those buses pull back into the American Legion parking lot.

“You see pictures at the end of World War II of big parades in New York City and Washington, D.C., but most of the guys were still overseas,” he said. “They didn’t get home until sometime in 1946 or ’47. They got off the boat or got off the bus, took the uniform off and went to work.”

Flight director Barbara Cooksey proudly displays the vest that belonged to Villages Honor Flight founder Mark Erdrich before he died in February.

Peters, of the Village of Santiago, said the homecoming ceremonies are equally important for Korean War-era and Vietnam War-era veterans.

“They call Korea ‘The Forgotten War,’” he said. “And Vietnam was not popular at all. Guys coming home didn’t want to wear the uniform. They were getting spit on and yelled at. So this is just a chance to give them the recognition and the welcome home they never got.”

Anyone associated with Honor Flight will tell you that every trip is memorable. But last week’s mission is one that flight director Barbara Cooksey won’t soon forget, largely because she was wearing a special vest that belonged to Villages Honor Flight founder Mark Erdrich before he died in February.

“He’s the one who made Villages Honor Flight what we are today,” said Cooksey, who lives in the Village of Polo Ridge. “Mark wore it on every mission, so I am absolutely honored to wear it.”

A crew from The Villages Fire Department offers a special welcome-home salute to the 60 Honor Flight veterans.

As for the 60 veterans who were on Cooksey’s flight, she had to pause and take a deep breath before she explained what they mean to her and everyone associated with Villages Honor Flight.

“These are our heroes,” she said. “They don’t think they are, but they’ve allowed us to live in the country that we have today.”

Well said, Barbara. Well said.

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