Orlando, FL September 12, 2015 – Our day began at “zero dark thirty” in Orlando Airport when staff and volunteers prepared for the first mornings task – receiving, off-loading, and staging our wheelchairs curbside near the sign “Honor Flight Check-In”. There were still passenger manifest to update, boarding passes to have printed for distribution, travel supplies to organize, airport personnel to coordinate with, as well as modifying our itinerary due to changing of weather expectations. The BOD, Staff and volunteers rallied to accomplish the morning’s checklist of final preparations for our flight to Washington D.C. and begin receiving our Honorees and Guardians. The first Honoree was welcomed curbside after a trip that began for him in Palm Coast at 2AM when he was picked up at his home to head to OIA. Guardians and our team prepared to welcome and assure he and the 49 other Honorees arriving for their Honor Flight would get “Rock Star” treatment for their day of tribute. All of our “plan B’s and C’s” were reviewed while the lobby area where we gathered filled to capacity. After distributing tickets in pairs to our Veteran and Guardian teams, we performed the first of many “sound-offs” wherein we take a roll call of our travelers. Each pair is designated a sound-off number we use in a verbal call out of their presence at each time we are prepared to move to a point of departure. With a full and resounding, and most importantly complete accounting of our travelers, we advanced as a group to TSA checkpoint screening where our Honorees were treated with the honor and respect they deserve. Arrangements with the airport authority and TSA assure there are no embarrassing and touchy feely pat-downs of our heroes, no shoes and belts to be removed, and that all are treated with the dignity they should be afforded. Arriving at our gate, a hot breakfast was served to all there, along with some much needed coffee. Our group of 112 travelers was bleary eyed and anxious in anticipation of the day’s events. Another “sound-off” was performed before we moved on and began boarding our group on a Southwest Airlines Jet where about 20 members of the general public joined us for the flight to the capital. The TSA assembled a Color Guard team at the gate entrance to our plane and stood at full attention displaying our Nation’s flag, and honoring our Veterans. Our wheelchairs were loaded in the belly of the plane and we taxied out to the runway to receive a water cannon “salute” from Orange County Fire Department’s Airport Emergency Services fire trucks. We arrived on time at Baltimore Washington International Airport and were blessed to find a long receiving line of uniformed Sailors and Soldiers and Airmen, mostly in their 20s, assembled specifically to greet our Honorees. It made for a great start to a long day that would be full of emotions for everyone involved. After brief rest stops for our travelers, we sounded off as a group again – all present and accounted for, we moved to our busses accompanied by a wave of Honor Flight capital based volunteers whose mission is to receive each and every Flight Mission and coordinate with Airport authorities and bus lines, caterers and others to escort us through the airport maze to the street and prepare the busses for our travelers. All loaded, our busses pulled away from the curb with all having “eyes right” to view a line of uniformed Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen saluting our Honorees. We were off and on our way. After changing our itinerary to meet the day’s weather challenges, we had decided to make our first stop at the WWll memorial after the 40 minute drive to D.C. and although it rained most of the way, the clouds parted as we exited our busses. Again, we were greeted curbside at our VIP parking by unformed members of our armed forces along with Honor Flight volunteers. There were about a dozen WWll era and 1940’s re-enactors dressed in period correct service uniforms from the various branches as well as swing dancers in fitting dress that turn out to pay their own tribute to our Honorees. At the entrance to the memorial was man in a wheel chair, who on closer inspection proved to be the former senior Senator from Kansas and WWll Veteran Bob Dole. As fragile as his own health his, he goes to the WWll memorial regularly to welcome his comrades and battle buddies to the “Jewel of the Mall” , completed in 2004, in tribute to the sacrifices of our greatest generation, by a thankful Nation. We descended down the ramp in to the well of the memorial and assembled below the arch dedicated to those who served in the Pacific theatre for our one and only group picture. With the columns and wall of stars around us, and the fountain as a backdrop, we hoped to take a picture that all would get as a keepsake of their day of honor. With our Honorees in their wheel chairs and our volunteers and guest standing in tribute, the shutter was snapped, and the moment preserved as a memory and tribute. Total strangers approached our Honorees and offered thanks and kind words that most have never experienced, giving them the realization that there are many who recognize and value their service and sacrifices. This stop is only the first of many that will evoke memories and raw emotion that have a profound impact on our Honorees. With the deepest humility, they appreciated that others sought them there to speak to them in a most personal way, and show that Americans of all stripes have a special place in their hearts for them. Another sound-off performed, we boarded our busses and headed to Arlington National Cemetery for our appointment to witness the changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. All were given ponchos as there was light rain when we exited our busses in front of the tomb. Despite the rain, everyone proceeded to our reserved area to witness the hourly ceremony on the Hallowed Ground that is Arlington. To say it is solemn is an understatement. The blowing of taps at The Tomb, compels emotion from a subset of the public in a way that only they know. Those who served in battle and experienced the loss of their comrades and friends are moved deeply at this very special place. While the usual public masses that usually come here was small due to the weather, such trivial things have little impact on Honorees like ours. Their motives for being at Arlington are about Duty, Honor and Country, and not part of a tourist checklist subject to change based on convenience or precipitation. As we sat there for about 40 minutes the volume of rain increased to a heavy pouring downfall. Not a single traveler moved from their place. Our Guardians held true to their commitment to support our Honorees at this place of tribute, and our Veterans were oblivious to the torrent. We re-boarded our busses in silence and not a single complaint of the downfall was heard, as clear priority was given to the things that all felt were truly important – paying respect to our fallen, and observing the solemnity due at a very special place of Honor. We moved quietly through the cemetery on our coaches and stopped at the Women in Services Memorial, at the main gate of Arlington to observe a place dedicated to the brave women who have served our Nation in so many ways. Their service, like that of all who wear or have worn the uniform, should never be diminished, and this special place, like many of our National Memorials and Monuments to our Veterans, was too long in coming. As the skies cleared somewhat, we boarded our busses again and headed over to our next stop – adjacent to the corner of the Lincoln Memorial, where we parked to pay respect at the Korea War Memorial and the Vietnam Wall Memorial. All are reminded at the backdrop of the Korea War Memorial that “Freedom is not Free”, and of the cost associated with preserving liberty, specifically the blood of Patriots who laid down their lives in service to freedom. The depiction of slightly larger than life troops in a combat role and the “ghost” images on the perimeter of the memorial, make it one of the more moving Memorials in the Capital. The Vietnam Memorial is of special significance to those who served in that era. An unpopular war, carried out in tumultuous times, the Veterans who served our Nation then were often treated with personal disdain by certain factions of the public. There, you are reminded of the importance of each individual life lost by the engraving of every name on a wall that seems to go on forever, and how those losses multiplied over time, and deepened in their totality. Finally, with this Memorial, America came to grips with the fact that the fallen Veterans of this era in particular, deserved a tribute that was separate and distinct from how America may have felt about the war itself. After another resounding sound-off we traveled around the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial. As you circle it, you get a sense of the flag being physically raised at Mount Suribachi, an element inherent to the design, and a tribute to those there, the majority of whom lost their lives so the few memorialized in that icon could achieve a goal at incredible cost. We wound up our visit to the Capital by stopping and disembarking at the Air Force Memorial. The soaring vertical spires at the Memorial represent the three core values of integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do, but they also represent three of four planes performing a Missing Man formation in tribute to the fallen. Our stops comprised a humbling tour to students of history, and opened eyes of those who are not. One could not help but be both sad for the lives lost, but also proud of all those who step up and serve us, while also glad so many agree on one thing – these memorials are an important expression of recognition and appreciation. Viewing and reflecting at them should give anyone pause, and their meaning is deeper still to our Veterans. With our visit to the Capital complete, we headed out to BWI. The mood was different than at the start of the day – more somber, more stoic. We were all reminded of, and found commonality in, sharing a time to remember – for some it was their personal memories of their time of service, for others it is in remembering this Mission and seeing the Memorials through the eyes of those who lived the history most of us only read about. On the trip back home from BWI, many staff and Guardians catnapped due to exhaustion, while our Honorees remained awake, taking in the meaning of the day. Our staff hoped we provided a true life event to our Honorees, and gave insight to our volunteer Guardians that only an Honor Flight can offer. For the Guardians that traveled arm in arm with our Honorees and also have served in the Armed Forces themselves, they not only shared a comradery only Veterans really understand, we know they admired those who shared similar experiences and recognize how those who serve today, stand on the shoulders of all who have served during the conflicts and wars memorialized around the capital. On arrival at Orlando, our mission team was greeted by the sound of a lone bagpiper playing God Bless America, and then after our final sound off, like the day began, as a group, we took the tram to the main terminal. While being “piped in” and led by our bagpiper to the atrium we saw hundreds of people who had formed two receiving lines several people deep, and a corridor of Honor right up the middle for our heroes. There were more flags than I could count, hand-made signs of thanks, and a public who wanted to express their own appreciation in the same way our BOD, Staff and Volunteers strive to. The culmination of the day’s events brought on both smiles and tears all around. To see these men and women, some of the most humble heroes you could meet, have their day end on such a high note, gives all of us at Honor Flight Central Florida immense pride in our mission. Our mission is simply stated – Our Veterans have honored us with their service and it is our time to honor them. Our motto is given real meaning when it all comes together as it did yesterday. That motto was coined by Will Rogers, when he said “We can’t all be heroes, some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they go by”.
Ed Riordan, Chairman
Honor Flight Central Florida