Honor Flights Pay Tribute To American Veterans

By  //  January 11, 2013

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Forever Grateful

BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – The contributions and sacrifices made by American servicemen in World War II changed the course of the world, but before they fade into history, a group has stepped forward to recognize veterans for their devotion to the cause of freedom.

The Honor Flight network is a national organization that transports World War II veterans to visit their memorial in Washington, D.C. free of charge.

Conceived by Retired Air Force Capt. Earl Morse, what was initially just the charitable act of one man and one plane has now become a national network of 117 hubs in partnership with Southwest Airlines that has flown more than 81,000 World War II veterans.

As president of the Space Coast Honor Flight hub, Bill Welser oversees one of the most veteran-rich locales in the country.

“We have 9,500 World War II veterans in Brevard County” Welser said. “In the next five years, all of our World War II veterans will be over 90 years old, so it’s a program that we believe in moving forward as quickly as possible.”

Space Coast Honor Flight veterans visit the National World War II Memorial in May. (Image courtesy Space Coast Honor Flight)

Local hub

Space Coast Honor Flight, one of seven hubs in the state of Florida, hosts seven flights a year.

Each flight consists of 25 veterans who are assisted on a one-on-one basis by a guardian helper.

On the day of the flight, they gather at the Wickham Park Senior Center at 4 a.m. and then travel to Orlando International Airport by chartered bus to begin their journey.

There they board a flight that takes them to Baltimore, followed by a short bus ride into Washington, D.C. with the emphasis of the trip being a visit to the World War II Memorial.

They also visit the Korean and Vietnam War Memorials and Arlington National Cemetery.

“When we have a significant number of women on the trip we also visit the Women’s War Memorial,” said Welser.

Then it’s back to the airport that evening to fly back to Orlando, returning to the senior center late in the evening.

“Some people say, well that’s got to be really tiring for the veterans,” said Welser. “When the veterans get back here at night we have the center open for coffee and doughnuts. We end up having to ask the veterans to leave. It gets past midnight and we still have folks reveling over the trip.”

Bill Welser is president of the Space Coast Honor Flight group. (Image by Derek Suomi)

Volunteers

Space Coast Honor Flight is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization.

There’s no paid staff and the flights are paid for through individual hubs fundraising efforts and donations.

Costing about $24,000 for each flight, each guardian that accompanies a veteran on the trip (usually a family member or a volunteer) is requested to make a contribution of $400 to cover the cost of their flight.

The remaining funds are raised from a variety of sources including speaking engagements and individual donations.

“Last year one person provided a $40,000 anonymous grant making it possible to send 50 GI’s from Patrick Air Force Base acting as guardians and 50 veterans on the trip,” said Welser.

About a month after the trip, the organization holds a reunion event that gathers back the most recent flight of veterans and their guardians to relive and share the experience with their friends and families.

The event is in many ways reflective of the experience of going on the flight itself.

At one time jovial and at other times somber, each veteran in attendance is welcomed to share their thoughts and insight stemming from the trip.

The National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. was dedicated in 2004. (Image courtesy Honor Flight network)

Unforgettable

One veteran shared with the group that “the feeling while walking through the airport and having hundreds of people applauding and thanking them for their efforts” was something he would never forget.

Another veteran said the experience of the visit to Washington with fellow veterans from the Space Coast Honor Flight group was as impacting as the birth of her children.

A third veteran thanked her guardian specifically for her assistance in making what would have been a physically impossible trip for her, possible.

The latest reunion also featured a short film created by the Space Coast Honor Flight that detailed the trip’s events in a dramatic, emotional fashion in addition to remarks from special guest speaker Mayor Michael C. Blake of Cocoa.

“I could not stand at this podium if it were not for the men and women of World War II,” said Blake.

Invoking a reverent tone he noted that “in the Bible it tells you if you want to be a great leader, you must be a great servant,” adding, “Our veterans are the servant of the people, you are the leaders of this great nation.”

Service to country is something that Bill Welser understands first-hand and led to his involvement with the Honor Flight organization.

As a Vietnam veteran having served 35 years in the U.S. Air Force, Welser accompanied his father, a Navy veteran, to the memorial in 2010.

A veteran is accompanied on his Honor Flight to Washington by a volunteer who is an active duty military member from Patrick Air Force Base. (Image courtesy Space Coast Honor Flight)

Guardians

After seeing what kind of an impact the visit had on his father, he decided to join the Space Coast Honor Flight as a guardian.

“We Vietnam Veterans, we’ve had our chance to see our memorial. When the World War II memorial was finished in 2004, many World War II veterans were not of the means or the health to travel to see it.”

Now serving a two-year term as president of the organization, Welser has their goals and responsibilities well in mind.

“World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 50 an hour,” Welser said. “The main goal of the organization is to ensure every World War II veteran in the area gets to go on the flight.”

All flights for this year have been completely booked and work has already begun on next year’s flights.

Veterans interested on going on the flight can register either online at SpacecoastHonorFlight.org or by calling 1-888-750-2522.


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