Harbor Style November 2017 : Page 97
An Honor & Privilege Southwest Florida Honor Flight transports our Veterans, at no cost to them, to Washington, D.C. to YLVLWDQGUHÁHFWDWWKHPHPRULDOVEXLOWLQWKHLUKRQRU Story by Rusty Pray I Photography by Sue Paquin any things struck Joe Zeller on his Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. The people at the airports, how they cheered and thanked him and the other veterans who made the journey. The World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Wall, Iwo Jima Monument, Women in Military Service Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. While there, he witnessed the changing of the guard ceremony. In addition, there was symphony orchestra music from the 1940s, folks dressed in period costumes, and dancing. There was also mail call, in which the veterans were given letters of appreciation. All of it was memorable. All of it meant something to the 63-year-old Navy veteran – the youngest of the 68 veterans who took part in the Southwest Florida Honor Flight in May. The thing that stuck with him most, though, the thing he carries with him today, is the realization of why the Wall stands in tribute to the 58,307 who were killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War. “They were 18, 19 years old, scared to death, and they didn’t make it back,” he said. “I got tears in my eyes.” Zeller, a salesman for a large bread company, served on the aircraft carrier Hancock. He said he took part in the evacuation of Saigon. But he draws a distinction between what he did and what those names on the Wall did. He is a veteran. They are Vietnam War veterans. There’s a difference. He is not the only veteran from that era who draws that line. “Those guys on the wall, they were the hitters,” Zeller said. “They were the bad asses back in the day. They took the brunt of everything.” ³ M H ARBOR STYLE | 97
An Honor & Privilege
Southwest Florida Honor Flight transports our Veterans, at no cost to them, to Washington, D.C. to Visit and reflect at the memorials built in their honor.
Many things struck Joe Zeller on his Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C. The people at the airports, how they cheered and thanked him and the other veterans who made the journey.
The World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Wall, Iwo Jima Monument, Women in Military Service Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. While there, he witnessed the changing of the guard ceremony.
In addition, there was symphony orchestra music from the 1940s, folks dressed in period costumes, and dancing. There was also mail call, in which the veterans were given letters of appreciation.
All of it was memorable. All of it meant something to the 63-year-old Navy veteran – the youngest of the 68 veterans who took part in the Southwest Florida Honor Flight in May.
The thing that stuck with him most, though, the thing he carries with him today, is the realization of why the Wall stands in tribute to the 58,307 who were killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War.
“They were 18, 19 years old, scared to death, and they didn’t make it back,” he said. “I got tears in my eyes.”
Zeller, a salesman for a large bread company, served on the aircraft carrier Hancock. He said he took part in the evacuation of Saigon. But he draws a distinction between what he did and what those names on the Wall did.
He is a veteran. They are Vietnam War veterans. There’s a difference. He is not the only veteran from that era who draws that line.
“Those guys on the wall, they were the hitters,” Zeller said. “They were the bad asses back in the day. They took the brunt of everything.”
Zeller’s trip with Southwest Honor Flight was in May. It was the 21st and most recent of the Southwest flights, which treat veterans to a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the war memorials. Southwest Honor Flight serves Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The veterans’ way is paid during the one-day trip. They are accompanied by guardians, who pay their own way at $550 each. A total of 149 people took part in the Honor Flight in May.
The journey included three generations of one family – Lloyd Parsons; his son, Lloyd Jr.; and his grandson, Joe, who went as a guardian – and a 103-year-old Army Air Force veteran, Ervin Yoas, a resident of Punta Gorda Isles and the oldest of the group.
“I didn’t want to go at first,” Parsons Jr., a Vietnam Army vet, told the Englewood Sun’s Elaine Allen-Emrich back in June. “I hate crowds and waiting in line. The Army pretty much broke me of all that. After experiencing the memorials and spending time with my father and my son, it was well worth it. I’m glad I went.”
The trip begins at some ungodly hour in the morning and returns the same day at an equally ridiculous time of night. When the veterans arrive at the airports, they are traditionally greeted by well-wishers. Veterans get up around 3 a.m. to meet at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers and catch a charter flight departing to Washington, D.C., at 7 a.m.
“As we were walking down the terminal, there were people cheering, coming up to hug you and thank you,” Zeller said. “And they were sincere.”
When the return flight arrived in Fort Myers, “it was late. I was so surprised that people were there holding signs thanking us,” Parsons Jr. Told Allen-Emrich. “It was so different than when I came back from Vietnam and people spit on us and didn’t Support us at all. It didn’t matter to them that so many soldiers died — some I knew.”
The Honor Flight program started nationally in 2005 and in Charlotte County in 2007. The program exists solely to honor America’s veterans for their sacrifices.
The story goes that the national program was started by Jeff Miller, a small-business owner from Hendersonville, N.C., and Earl Morse, a doctor and retired Air Force captain. According to the Honor Flight’s website, www.honorflight.org, Morse worked in a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Springfield, Ohio, where he saw many patients who were World War II veterans. After the National World War II Memorial in Washington was completed in 2004, he asked many of his veteran patients if they were going to see it, and most said yes.
During follow up visits months later, he checked back in with them, and “for most of the veterans he asked, reality had settled in; it was clear to most that it simply wasn’t financially or physically possible for them to make the journey. Most of these senior heroes were in their 80s and lacked the physical and mental wherewithal to complete a trip on their own. Families and friends also lacked the resources and time to complete the three- to four-day trip to the nation’s capital.”
Morse, a private pilot as well as a physician, offered to fly with two veterans to Washington to see the memorial. After seeing them break down and cry and graciously accept the offer, he pitched his idea to a local aeroclub of 150 private pilots, proposing that the pilots would pay for the flights for the veterans to Washington and personally escort them around the city. “Eleven pilots who had never met his patients stepped up to volunteer. And Honor Flight was born.”
Miller, “inspired by Morse’s vision, had a similar idea but on a larger scale.”
Over the years, the Southwest Florida Honor Flight has taken probably 1,000 or more veterans to Washington – mostly World War II survivors, some ambulatory, some in wheelchairs. Top priority is given to the senior veterans – World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill. Nationally, more than 180,000 veterans have been flown to Washington since the beginning of the program.
Over the years, the field of World War II veterans has grown ever thinner – even in Charlotte County, which has a veteran population of about 36,000. According to Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, more than 600 World War II veterans die each day nationwide.
Local organizers are in the process of planning another flight. They don’t know when that will be because it costs $62,000 to charter a plane, $85,000 total altogether to get the flight off the ground. The nonprofit organization must raise the money through private donations. It is not supported by any federal, state or county government agencies.
“We’re going to try to pull off another flight, which would be fantastic,” said Hank Reposa, president of the five-member Southwest Florida Honor Flight Inc. board. “We used to take commercial flights on Southwest Airlines, but they stopped direct flights.
“We couldn’t take 50 World War II veterans who are hardly ambulatory to Atlanta, and then to Washington. You got to get them off one plane and on another. Same thing coming back. It would be way too much. So, we had to start a charter.”
And that’s how it works. The local Honor Flight must be built from scratch each time before it can get off the ground. Money is raised, and a flight goes up. The flight returns, and fundraising starts anew.
“It’s all grassroots fundraising,” said Liz Barton, administrator for the Douglas T. Jacobson State Veterans Home in Port Charlotte and vice president of the Honor Flight board. “Once in a while, we’ll get a benevolent donor, but most of it is word of mouth.”
There are 36 veterans organizations in the community that help raise money. Some will sponsor a guardian to go with a vet at $1,100 a pop.
One of the most loyal to the Honor Flight is DOGS – do only good things. The biker group, Barton said, is made up of “crazy wonderful guys. They do a lot of fundraising for us.
In the last four years, they’ve given us between $14,000 and $19,000.” What the Honor Flight doesn’t have is one entity it can depend on year in, year out.
“We’re looking for corporate sponsors.,” Barton said. “We don’t have any corporate sponsors.
We’d love some. Harbor Nissan just gave $1,000 and donated $2,500 last year.
“Mostly, what we get is really grassroots.”
Reposa nodded. “It’s not good for us to be in limbo all the time.
We’re constantly being asked, ‘When’s the next flight? When’s the next flight?’ We have to say, ‘We can’t do it until we get sufficient funds for it.’ I hate that.”
Barton is among those who went on the first Southwest Florida Honor Flight in September 2007. At the time, Joan Jacobson, widow of the Medal of Honor winner, was volunteering full time at the facility named for her husband. It was decided that two veterans from the home would be included in the flight.
Don Vecoli, at the time the veterans claims examiner for Charlotte County and the president of Southwest Florida Honor Flight, approached Barton. “He came over and said they were going to have their maiden voyage. They were going to have an Honor Flight and they’d like Joan, me and two of our residents to go.”
Barton wanted to take her father, a veteran of Korea and Vietnam and a resident of the home. But he fell ill and was not strong enough to make the trip. He has since passed away.
“My dad couldn’t go,” Barton recalled. “We took two others. Because he couldn’t go, I felt I had to go. I felt I needed to go. Not just to babysit my two vets I took from the home, but because to me it was a great honor and privilege because he couldn’t see the memorial.
“He was so proud of me that I went on the flight, I swore I’d do it every year. And I did.”
Reposa, a veteran, was motivated to get active in the Honor Flight effort by a sense of gratitude. “I always felt we owe the Greatest Generation,” he explained. “My personal feeling is, we’ve got to give back. We have to give back in some way.
“When this program came about I said, ‘I want to be on board. I want to be part of this.’ I didn’t know I would get involved to this extent. The old cliché is it’s an honor and privilege to do this. It is. It amazes me. It makes me a better person. It makes me feel good. Every time I get involved in a flight, it brings my feelings out. It’s fantastic.”
He is not alone in his good feelings.
John H. Koerber of North Port took part in the flight in May, his trip paid for by an anonymous sponsor. Upon his return, he sent a check to Southwest Honor Flight for $550, paying his own way, with a letter expressing his gratitude.
“I would like to express my appreciation to you on how well it was organized,” he wrote. “Especially how well the volunteers worked together with the guardians and veterans to make sure everyone was accounted for and comfortable.”
Zeller’s guardian was his daughter Lisa, who works at the Jacobson home.
“It was very exciting,” he said. “She is a proud American, very patriotic.”
The old Navy veteran has seen a lot in his time. What he saw in Washington left an indelible mark. It wasn’t so much the monuments.
It was the people.
“There was a young teacher at the Vietnam Wall,” Zeller recalled. “He was talking to his students, telling them what it meant. I stepped back and listened. He was telling his kids, ‘If you see a man wearing a Vietnam veteran hat, you shake his hand and thank him.’
“He was young, but he was making sure they knew, they understood, so it could be passed on to the next generation. It brought tears to my eyes.”
The whole trip, Zeller said, was “so touching. All enjoyed it, all were touched. I want people to know how good this thing is.
“I will never – on my deathbed – ever, forget it.”
For more information on the Southwest Florida Honor Flight, or to make a donation towards the organization’s next flight, visit www.honorflightswfl.org.
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