Forty veterans from throughout the Central Florida area were all smiles late Wednesday night as they climbed off buses at American Legion Post 347 in Lady Lake.
The group, known throughout the day as Honor Flight 44, enjoyed a special trip to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, thanks to Villages Honor Flight. They had guardians looking out for them and offering assistance throughout the day. And there was plenty of Honor Flight staff and a medical team traveling with the group to assure that their time in our nation’s capital visiting war memorials and other monuments wouldn’t soon be forgotten.
“Oh boy, this is something special,” said 85-year-old Navy veteran Janie Chapman, of the Village of Calumet Grove. “I really had no idea what to expect but it was the best.”
Chapman’s guardian, Marlene Wilkie, said she was thrilled to be assigned to the only female veteran on the trip.
“I’ve done this four times and she’s still the only female I’ve had,” the Village of Sabal Chase resident said. “It was very special and she’s really a special lady.”
Villager Debbie Diroff, who served as flight director and was enjoying pointing out that she got the group home early, called the day together with the veterans both fun and emotional. The Village of Charlotte resident was making her 21st Honor Flight and she said one moment stuck out in her mind when the group landed in Baltimore on Wednesday morning.
“I saw a young child come up and shake a veteran’s hand,” she said. “I turned to my photographer and I said, ‘I’ve got to walk way.’ We were both crying.”
Diroff said she’d never be able to devote so much time to Honor Flight without the support of her husband, Bill, a Navy veteran. And she added that volunteering with Honor Flight is her way of giving back to those veterans who take the trips.
“These men and women gave hours, weeks, months, years of their lives,” she said. “I can give a few of mine to take them to Washington.”
Hoyt Allen said he appreciated all the hard work Diroff and the entire Honor Flight staff put into making the day so special. And the former paratrooper who served almost 30 years in the army – he did two tours in the Korean War and three in Vietnam – said this homecoming was much different than one he remembers from more than 60 years ago.
“I came back from Korea and I had rocks and eggs and everything thrown at me,” he said. “Today, it brought all of it back in a great way. If we had had something like we had today with the soldiers returning, it would have been great.”
Allen, a resident of Elan Buena Vista Senior Living in The Villages, also took time to thank his guardian, Patrick Mallory, of Summerfield. And he added that the highlight of the day took place when he got off the bus at the American Legion Post.
“It was returning to this beautiful lady right here, my wife,” he said, as Jane smiled and gave him a hug.
Navy veteran Mike Sedlak, who served in both World War II and Korea, also offered praise for his guardian, Villager Bob Hammer.
“Today was a wonderful day,” he said. “I had a good guide and companion and he watched me like a hawk.”
Hammer, an Army veteran who lives in the Village of Buttonwood, said he watched many special moments take place on Wednesday.
“When you see total strangers in Washington walking up to these gentlemen and thanking them, kids giving them high fives and thanking them for their service, it’s very emotional,” said the snowbird from Ohio, whose wife, Diane, performed with The Villages Twirlers and Drum Corps before the veterans arrived home.
Wednesday’s flight marked the first one of 2019 for Villages Honor Flight. The group has now flown close to 1,250 veterans to Washington, D.C. And five more flights are planned this year – three to Washington on June 5, Sept. 18 and Oct. 30; and two flightless missions at a local recreation center on June 29 and Nov. 23.
For further information on veteran and volunteer applications, visit www.villageshonorflight.org.