Honor Flight veteran finds loving surprise waiting for him after ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip

The look on Wayne Stevenson’s face was priceless.

As the Air Force veteran stepped off the Honor Flight bus in the wee hours of Thursday morning at American Legion Post 347, he obviously was looking for Gayle, his wife of 41 years.

Air Force veteran Wayne Stevenson, of Pennbrooke Fairways in Leesburg, didn’t know his daughter, Kimberly Benefiel, was flying in from Colorado to surprise him.

But when the 79-year-old Pennbrooke Fairways resident spotted her, he also got a surprise that nearly stopped him in his tracks – daughter Kimberly Benefiel was waiting to give him a big hug after coming all the way from Greeley, Colo.

“I was flabbergasted,” said a thoroughly surprised Wayne, beaming from ear to ear. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

As for Gayle, Wayne laughed and said: “It’s the first time I ever knew she could keep a secret that long.”

Gayle said having Benefiel here for Wayne’s special day was a plan that was hatched back in the summer.

Villages Honor Flight veteran Wayne Stevenson at John Glenn’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery.

“She had mentioned to me that she wanted to be here,” Gayle said. “It’s a good thing he doesn’t know texting very well, because she and I texted a lot. And as fast as she would text and I’d respond back, I would delete it in case he happened to find it.”

Benefiel, who couldn’t stop hugging her dad or smiling, said the Air Force was important for her father because it changed his life and set him in the right direction as a young man.

“He went in and then became head mechanic at Pan Am Airlines in New York at Kennedy Airport,” she said. “So it really taught him a skill. He’s been in love with planes since he was seven and built his very first one.”

Veteran Wayne Stevenson prepares to hug Gayle, his wife of 41 years, after returning home from an Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., early Thursday morning.

As for the Honor Flight trip, Benefiel labeled it an “incredible” opportunity for her father and the other veterans who made the journey to Washington, D.C. on Honor Flight No. 42 to see the monuments – the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial – that are dedicated to them.

“Having him be a part of this is amazing,” said Benefiel, whose husband, Richard, spent 20 years in the Army as a paratrooper. “It’s very heartfelt to me. That’s why I needed to be here. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m just very happy for him.”

Air Force veteran Wayne Stevenson and his guardian, Debbie Diroff, pose for a photo in front of the Washington Monument during Honor Flight 42 on Wednesday.

Wayne’s guardian on the flight, Villager Debbie Diroff, also was emotional when she saw the look on Wayne’s face as he hugged Benefiel.

“I didn’t know about it, either,” she said of the surprise visit. “He kept talking about one of his daughters coming to visit at Thanksgiving. But he never said anything about this. It really brought me to tears.”

The American Legion Post 347 Honor Guard awaits the arrival of the Honor Flight buses early Thursday morning.

Diroff added that she thoroughly enjoyed spending her 19th trip as an Honor Flight volunteer with Wayne.

“He was just the greatest veteran to work with,” she said. “He’s just real young at heart and very young in everything we did.”

Veteran Wayne Stevenson gets a kiss on the cheek from his guardian, Debbie Diroff.

Diroff said Wayne made it quite clear that he didn’t plan on using a wheelchair during the trip.

“We walked everywhere,” she said. “We did over 12,000 steps together today.”
As for why she spends so much time as an Honor Flight volunteer – she’s been a flight director on two trips – Diroff said it’s really quite simple.

“It’s because of my freedom. I owe it to the veterans,” said the Village of Charlotte resident, whose husband, Bill, served four years in the Navy and flew on an Honor Flight in May where Debbie was the second in command. “I live in this great country and it’s because of these people, including my husband, who went and sacrificed time out of their lives to serve our country. This is my way to give back.”

Gayle Stevenson, Kimberly Benefiel, Wayne Stevenson and Debbie Diroff after Honor Flight 42.

As for Wayne, he said the trip to our nation’s capital is something he’ll never forget.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he said. “But it was a fabulous trip. I can’t express how good it was and I think it’s great what they’re doing for all the veterans. I’d recommend that any veteran should go there.”

As for Gayle, Benefiel and his six other children, Wayne made it a point to add one thing: “I’m very proud of my family for supporting me, too.”

Honor Flight veterans salute early Thursday morning during the playing of the national anthem at American Legion Post 347.
Kimberly Benefiel and her stepmother, Gayle Stevenson, wait to surprise veteran Wayne Stevenson before the return of Honor Flight No. 42.
An exited crowd awaits the return of veterans aboard Honor Flight 42 early Thursday morning.
Veteran Wayne Stevenson at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C.