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The Villages
Wednesday, September 27, 2023

We salute everyone involved with Villages Honor Flight and its special mission

Wonderful things always happen when Villages Honor Flight takes veterans to our nation’s capital to see the memorials that are dedicated to them.

Unbelievable stories come out of those trips. Tears are shed more than once throughout the day. And very special men and women who made huge sacrifices for our country receive the attention they deserve and the welcome home many of them never experienced.

Honor Flight veterans salute during the singing of the national anthem at the end of Flight 41.

The latest group of 62 Honor Flight veterans is a fine example of what we’re talking about. They returned home this past Friday in the wee hours of the morning after being up more than 24 hours. But as they came off the buses to mark the end of the organization’s 41st “mission,” it was a moment those in attendance won’t soon forget.

Most of them had served during the Korean War. Nine served in World War II. Two served during the 1950s and in Vietnam. And one was in WW II, Korea and Vietnam.

Twenty-seven served in the Army, 21 in the Navy, 10 in the Air Force and four in the Marine Corps. They came from The Villages, Wildwood, Lady Lake, Summerfield, Belleview, Leesburg, Ocala, Beverly Hills, Citrus Springs, Homosassa, Inverness, Kissimmee, and Tavares.

There was Villager Bill McPeek, an Air Force veteran who served aboard a B-52 flying over Vietnam. Fellow Villager Don Thompson was a Navy blimp crewmember during the Korean War doing anti-submarine patrols along the East Coast of the United States.

Veterans return home from Honor Flight No. 39 in May in the wee hours of the morning to rounds of applause and chants of ‘Welcome home!’

Villager Carmine Micena, a WW II Navy Seabee, also took the trip that included stops at the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial.

And he was joined by Ocala’s John Bradley, a career Air Force veteran who spent time in WW II, Korea and Vietnam; Villager Jack Lathrop, who served in the Navy aboard the USS English; Villager James A. Howd, an Army veteran and highly decorated Vietnam Huey helicopter pilot; Bert Nease, of Okahumpka, an Army infantryman with a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts; and two former Army paratroopers, Don Westlund of Homosassa and Villager Dave Zecher, among others.

Veterans traveling on Villages Honor Flight No. 39 visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
A veteran gives the “thumbs up” sign during a previous Flightless Honor Flight.

As you can imagine, there were plenty of smiles and looks of surprise as the 62 veterans made their way through a line set up by American Legion Post 347’s Honor Guard. There were tears as well as some veterans finally enjoyed that moment of being welcomed home and thanked for their service. And like there is at every Honor Flight event, there was at least one surprise that showed a veteran just how much he means to this family.

That moment came around 2:30 a.m. Friday for Zecher as he and his guardian made their way to the seating area in front of the American Legion Post. The 81-year-old veteran likely didn’t remember the last time he was asleep, but he had a pep in his step as he searched for his wife, Sherri, in the crowd.

Army veteran Dave Zecher, second from left, poses with his daughter, Beth Schaad, wife Sherri and son Phil.

Zecher not only found Sherri, but standing with her was their two adult children, Beth Schaad of Cincinnati and Phil Zecher of Connecticut. Both traveled to The Villages to be with their father as he experienced the trip of a lifetime and received the many accolades he deserved for doing his part to protect our country.

Honor Flight volunteer Eileen Bennehoff, of the Village of Duval, was busy handing out flags at the end of Flight 39.

Before the buses arrived home, Sherri told me that her husband really wasn’t sure he was eligible for an Honor Flight because he wasn’t in combat. She said they learned that wasn’t the case after moving to The Villages. And she added that he was thrilled to be a member of Flight 41.

But Sherri also shared this with me – Dave was a paratrooper during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And his unit was ready to go into a battle that many clearly wouldn’t have returned home from.

Anybody who knows anything about history knows that those 13 days in October 1962 were a stressful time for our country and everyone serving in the military. That confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union is considered the closest our country came to nuclear war during the Cold War. So we can’t even begin to imagine what was running through Zecher’s mind as he considered the possibility of being a part of that nightmare.

Veterans enjoy the ceremony at the end of Flight 41 last week.

Yes, Zecher certainly deserved to be on that flight, as did every other veteran onboard. And every man and woman who ever put on a military uniform and did their part to protect the freedoms we all hold dearly also deserve the opportunity to take that special journey to Washington, D.C.

Flight 39 director Barbara Cooksey proudly displays the vest that belonged to Villages Honor Flight founder Mark Erdrich before he died in February.

So to each American hero who has been on an Honor Flight or will be in the future, we thank you for your service and the sacrifices you and your family members have made – many of which we’ll never know about. The tears we see at every Honor Flight event tell us that many of you were put in horrific situations when you were so young and innocent that it was hard to comprehend what was happening – all while being thousands of miles from home. And we know that throughout the events of the day, you’ve surely thought of those who served with you and didn’t come home.

Perhaps Villager Barbara Cooksey, who served as a guardian on the most recent flight, summed it up best. She served as the flight director on Honor Flight 39 in May and was watching her veterans reunite with their families after the day’s events finally came to a close.

“These are our heroes,” the Village of Polo Ridge resident. “They don’t think they are, but they’ve allowed us to live in the country that we have today.”

Frankly, we can’t say it any better than that. But we’ll just add a final word of thanks to every veteran who has served or will wear the uniform in the future. And we look forward to meeting even more of these amazing people and their family members when Honor Flight 42 departs in October.

Veteran Russ Smith and his guardian, Villager Debbie Winters, in Washington, D.C., as part of Honor Flight 41.

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