Villages 101: Villages Honor Flight started taking veterans to memorials in 2012

What started out as an idea to transport area veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials dedicated to them quickly became a reality in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.

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

It was late 2011 when late Villager Mark Erdrich gathered a small group to launch Villages Honor Flight. Villager Debbie Winters, who serves as president of the Mickey’s “Fan”atics Club, also was instrumental in starting the organization. She has been on 19 flights to our nation’s capital and her club regularly donates money to Villages Honor Flight.

The first honor flight actually took place in May 2005 when six small planes flew 12 World War II veterans to Washington, D.C. The non-profit Honor Flight Network was launched a short time later and on May 26, 2012, Villages Honor Flight flew its first mission.

The 40 veterans of Honor Flight 44 enjoyed a special ceremony at American Legion Post 347 after returning home from Washington, D.C.

Since that time, the local organization has grown dramatically. It made its 45th flight this past April and has even launched flightless missions for those who can’t make the trip to Washington, D.C.

Veterans participating in the Honor Flights meet at American Legion Post 347 in the wee hours of the morning. They takes buses to Orlando International Airport and then fly to the D.C.-area. After many special greetings at the airport, they take a bus tour through the city and visit the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial.

Mark Erdrich

The veterans who participate through Villages Honor Flight don’t pay for the trips. Volunteer guardians and staff members accompany them and they pay their own way each time.

Erdrich died on Feb. 12, 2018 and was memorialized a month later by some 90 colleagues, veterans and guests during a flag retirement ceremony and luncheon at the Moose Family Lodge in Leesburg.

Erdrich also was remembered in March 2018 when a tree was planted in his honor at The Villages Memorial Park. His wife, Caroline, was presented a flag in his honor. And since his death, every flight leader wears the vest that Erdrich wore on each trip.

Villager Debbie Diroff served as flight director for Honor Flight 44. It was her third time as flight director and her 21st journey overall.

Since its inception, Villages Honor Flight has shared many special moments with veterans. Some of those include:

  • In April, 40 participants, including 85-year-old Navy veteran Janie Chapman, fellow Navy veteran Mike Sedlak and former paratrooper Hoyt Allen, offered praise for their guardians and the experiences they enjoyed throughout the day. Longtime Honor Flight volunteer Debbie Diroff served as flight leader and was quite happy to point out that her group returned home early.
  • In November 2018, Wayne Stevenson received quite a surprise when he saw his daughter, Kimberly Benefiel, waiting for him at American Legion Post 347. She had flown in from Greeley, Colo., and couldn’t stop smiling or hugging her father, an Air Force veteran.
  • In November 2018, disabled Army veteran Pam Kelly participated in a flightless event at Colony Cottage Recreation Center. The soon-to-be recipient of a house on the Historic Side of The Villages being built by Villagers for Veterans called the day “more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” adding that it ranks right below serving her country for 17 years.
  • In September 2018, former Army paratrooper Dave Zecher was looking for his wife, Sherri, when he also found their two children, Beth Schaad, of Cincinnati, and Phil Zecher, of Connecticut, standing beside her waving American flags. “I did not expect them to come,” the surprised 81-year-old veteran said after the ceremony at American Legion Post 347.
  • In October 2018, Villages Honor Flight achieved another milestone – the 1,000th veteran taking a trip to Washington, D.C. And the group flew on a charter flight for the first time.
  • In May 2018, Navy veteran Bob Moreau was enjoying the handshakes and pats on the back during the Welcome Home Ceremony. And Flight Director Barb Cooksey, of the Village of Polo Ridge, called the veterans on her trip “awesome” and “amazing.”
  • In May 2017, Honor Flight participant Ed Ferreira was surprised by his daughters at the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. Their surprise visit was secretly arranged by his guardian on the trip, fellow Villager Joyce Cover. Diroff, serving as flight director, called it a touching moment.
  • In November 2016, 40 veterans made the trip to Washington, D.C. In addition to touching stories and a crowd to welcome home the veterans, the mission was special because it marked the 800th veteran to travel on a Villages Honor Flight.
  • In September 2016, Villages Honor Flight presented its first-ever Veterans Service Award of Appreciation to American Legion Post 347 for its financial support and for allowing the organization to use its facility for the send-offs and homecomings.
  • In May 2016, Korean War veteran Ed Donahue texted his wife after landing in Baltimore, Md., with this message: “What a fabulous reception in Baltimore. Not many dry eyes!” His street in the Village of St Charles was lit up with red, white and blue lights and American Flags as a surprise. And Donahue’s entire neighborhood came to the ceremony to welcome him home and show their support.
  • In September 2015, Honor Flight flew its 500th veteran to Washington, D.C. The group was serenaded by bagpipes when they touched down at Orlando International Airport and enjoyed a heroes’ welcome at American Legion Post 347.
  • In May 2015, it was announced that the next flight would include 92-year-old Dan Keel, of Clermont, one of the few remaining Tuskegee Airmen. Keel had served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II as a Billy Mitchell B-25 pilot.
  • A March 2015 flight paid tribute to late Honor Flight volunteer Bob Kitt, a decorated Navy captain. Kitt died Oct. 18, 2014 and served his country with distinction through World War II and Vietnam, retiring in 1973.
  • In November 2014, 87-year-old World War II Navy veteran Richard Horton was joined in Washington, D.C. by his son, daughter-in-law and grandson. “I spoke with my husband by phone earlier today and he was having a grand time,” 83-year-old Marilyn Horton said of her husband of 63 years.
  • In June 2013, Villages Honor Flight veterans enjoyed a special moment when they were greeted by former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and his wife, Elizabeth. “You can see that Bob Dole’s health is in decline, but it made a difference to these guys to see him there,” Honor Flight volunteer John Driscoll said.
    Army Sgt. Pam Kelly was all smiles before and after a ‘flightless’ Honor Flight event that was held at Colony Cottage Recreation Center.
    There was plenty of entertainment at American Legion Post 347 in Lady Lake as a large crowd waited for the return of 24 veterans from a ‘flightless’ Honor Flight event that was held at Colony Cottage Recreation Center.
    Veteran Russ Smith and his guardian, Villager Debbie Winters, in Washington, D.C., as part of Honor Flight 41.

    From left: Janet Flugler Dobson, Claudia Roper and Sue McLain offer a special message for Honor Flight veterans. Dobson and McLain live in the Village of Dunedin and are Honor Flight volunteers, while Roper is a resident of the Village of Poinciana.