On Tuesday, April 25, several veterans from Hernando County participated in an Honor Flight from St. Petersburg Clearwater International Airport (PIE) to Washington, D.C. It was a whirlwind tour that lasted less than a day but included a round-trip flight of more than 1,600 miles and encompassed visits to many iconic locations in our nation’s capital. Among these were the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the Vietnam War Memorial, and the Arlington National Cemetery.
The Honor Flight Society is a 501 c(3) non-profit organization founded in 2005. With “hubs” in 125 locations throughout the United States, its mission is to recognize American veterans for their sacrifice and service by flying them free of charge to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at the memorials dedicated in their honor.
Two of the local men on the flight were Gene Printz and Ron Ford. Both expressed their gratitude for having the opportunity to take part in the Honor Flight and stated that this was an unforgettable experience for them. Each veteran was accompanied by a companion (guardian) who was there to assist them throughout the day. In all, approximately 160 people participated in the flight last week.
Gene Printz, an 85-year-old Navy veteran, served as a radio operator in the 1950s after the Korean War and prior to the Vietnam War. For him, the most memorable part of the flight was meeting the other veterans, one of whom was 104 years old. Another veteran was a 100-year-old African-American who was a former Buffalo Soldier. Buffalo soldiers were part of an all-Black regiment dating back to the 1800s, who served in a number of conflicts, including World War I and World War II.
“All the veterans I met had positive memories and were proud of their military service,” Printz stated.
Among the many places he visited that day, the Arlington National Cemetery was his favorite.
“I sensed the pain of loss that many families have experienced when loved ones did not come home, were never identified, or remain listed as missing in action,” he remarked.
Printz’s 35-year-old grandson, Jesse Waldman, accompanied him as his guardian. Waldman is also a veteran, having served seven years in the Army, including two tours of duty in Iraq.
“I chose to go on the honor flight with my grandpa because I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I enjoyed meeting and talking with older veterans too. The whole day was amazing,” remarked Waldman.
Ron Ford, a 75-year-old veteran who served in the Army from 1965 to 1968, describes the honor flight experience as “awesome.”
“The attention to detail from the volunteers was beyond explanation. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington and the changing of the guard were truly great!” he stated.
Spring Hill resident Stephen Katz is a member of the board of directors for Honor Flight West Central Florida (HFWCF), which covers ten counties in the Tampa area. He has been involved with the group since 2013. As a Navy veteran with two years of active duty and four years of duty in the reserves, Katz understands what it means to be in the military and how important it is to recognize these men and women.
“The most satisfying thing about being affiliated with Honor Flight is the reaction of the veterans, seeing their happy faces and hearing their comments. Many of them say that this was the best day of their life,” stated Katz.
The group flew in an Allegiant A320 aircraft. “Allegiant Airlines has bent over backwards to accommodate us and helped us in every way they can. They’ve been phenomenal,” Katz commented.
To cap off the day, when the plane returned to PIE, there was a huge crowd gathered in the airport terminal. Friends, family and volunteers held banners and cheered to welcome the veterans back home.
As a 501 c(3), Honor Flight receives no government funds and relies solely on contributions from individuals, businesses, and corporations. As an example of just how much it costs to run an organization like this, the fuel alone for the flight was $80,000. To its credit, 98 cents of every dollar they receive goes directly to their cause.
One of the ways someone can become involved in the Honor Flight Society is to volunteer to be a guardian to accompany one of the veterans. The guardians, who pay $500 to help offset the cost, must be able to walk long distances, push a wheelchair, assist the veteran on and off the bus, experience possible heat, cold, and rain, and endure a 20+ hour day.
Sometimes the guardian is a relative or friend, but often the guardian and veteran don’t know each other. They meet for the first time at an orientation session ahead of time.
Since its inception in 2005, the Honor Flight Society has flown more than 250,000 veterans free of charge. The West Central Florida branch has flown almost 3,300 veterans since it began in 2010.
The Honor Flights are just a small token of appreciation to our military men and women who have sacrificed so much and can never fully repay them. However, this experience means the world to the veterans and the memories of that day will last a lifetime.
For more details on the Honor Flight Society, go to www.honorflight.org. You can also learn about Honor Flight West Central Florida and fill out an application to go on a flight or act as a guardian by visiting www.honorflightwcf.org. To see pictures and read comments, be sure and follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Honor.Flight.WCF