Local veterans take an emotional journey on their Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
He could have been any intrepid tourist on a busy Saturday at the National Mall. With a point-and-shoot camera hanging from his neck, Longwood’s John Coble walked briskly through the World War II Memorial at the eastern end of the mall’s iconic Reflecting Pool. He snapped pictures, read the memorial’s many plaques, and dodged little children and other eager passersby. Few of them, if any, were aware that the sprawling monument in which they stood was built – at least in part – to honor John.
Had anyone stopped the 90-year-old WWII veteran to say as much, John would have graciously dismissed it out of hand.
“This isn’t for me,” John says. “I didn’t do much.”
Like so many who served, John’s humility belies his contribution to the world and to the countless men, women, and children who happily but unknowingly shared the National Mall with him on a blustery autumn afternoon.
During the war, John served in the Pacific theater just a few islands down from Iwo Jima, where Marines would plant their flag and inspire another monument elsewhere in Washington. Though he doesn’t look it (the description of his brisk pace was not an exaggeration), John is one of the few remaining veterans of WWII. The WWII Memorial, one of D.C.’s newest, was opened only in 2004. John, like the vast majority of his colleagues in the war, had never seen it, which is exactly why Honor Flight exists.
Honor Flight was born in 2005 in Springfield, Ohio, when six private pilots carried a dozen WWII vets to see their newly dedicated memorial. Today, with nonprofit Honor Flight chapters in most major U.S. cities, the goal is to bring as many remaining WWII veterans as possible to Washington, D.C., completely free of charge.
Honor Flight Central Florida is privileged to carry out the duty in our area. On the most recent Honor Flight, 43 veterans made the trip. About half served in WWII. As the ranks of WWII veterans have declined, Honor Flight has opened its program to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well. Each veteran is accompanied on the trip by a volunteer guardian who pays for the opportunity to attend to their vet’s every need.
John’s guardian, Richard Santos of Sanford, was a member of his own extended family. Richard surprised John with news of the 90-year-old’s seat on the Honor Flight during John’s birthday celebration in September.
“I was floored,” John remembers. “I couldn’t say a word, and that’s never happened to me in my life.”
Little did John know the pleasant surprises and speechless moments were just beginning.
A full color guard paid tribute to the veterans as they boarded a Southwest Airlines flight bright and early on the morning of the Honor Flight. When the plane arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, two hours later, a town crier in colonial garb announced the veterans’ arrival to an assembled crowd outside the gate. As the vets deplaned, dozens of cadets from the nearby United States Naval Academy lined up to shake each veteran’s hand and thank them for their service as supporters cheered and waved flags.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Army veteran Robert Garlie of Altamonte Springs, who served in the Korean War. “All those midshipmen thanking us. I’ve only been thanked for my service once or twice in my life, but so many people said thank-you that day. I felt like I was dreaming.”
As the veterans boarded two charter buses, the cadets lined up again to stand at attention and salute as the buses departed for the National Mall.
Even the bus ride was a highlight for Air Force and Korean War veteran Loyd Thomas of Lake Mary. Loyd and his fellow veterans were escorted through D.C.-area traffic by a lights-and-sirens motorcade courtesy of the United States Park Police.
“That was quite a thrill,” Loyd says. “The traffic just parted for us, and we drove straight through.”
Upon arrival at the WWII Memorial, the vets received another special greeting, this time from supporters dressed in WWII-era uniforms, complete with a nurse who eagerly reenacted the iconic Times Square kiss for any vet who didn’t mind spending the rest of the day with a big, red smooch on their cheek. John, the WWII vet from Longwood, was happy to oblige.
After a group picture was taken, the jovial mood turned somber as the vets were encouraged to explore the monuments at their own pace, most being pushed in wheelchairs by their guardians. Tears were shed by many of the veterans as memories of war and lost comrades flooded in. From the WWII Memorial, most veterans circled the Reflecting Pool to visit the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial and the lesser-known but no-less-haunting Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Most of the tears, however, were saved for the veterans’ next stop: Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns.
“Seeing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns was a real highlight for me,” says Loyd. “That was really a somber moment.”
“It was very special,” says Robert, whose grandson Ben traveled from Minnesota to serve as his guardian. “I wanted Ben to see it, to understand what people went through. Ben is not an emotional guy, but he put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. That’s when I knew he was feeling something.”
Not every Honor Flight is fortunate enough to see a wreath laying during its time at the Tomb. But on this fateful day, Honor Flight Central Florida witnessed three wreath layings in succession before the tight schedule forced the group back on the bus.
The motorcade escorted the veterans on a driving tour past several more monuments, including the majestic United States Air Force Memorial.
“I had never seen it – in fact, I didn’t even know it was there!” laughs Loyd, the Air Force veteran from Lake Mary. “It was beautiful, and I’m so glad I got the chance to see it for myself. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful trip.”
Tired from a 20-hour day, the veterans and their guardians returned to Orlando International Airport grateful and humbled. A bagpiper serenaded the group as they came out of the gate, but her cheerful renditions of military anthems were only a taste of what was to come. To the vets’ surprise, more than 100 cheering supporters were waiting to greet them as they exited OIA’s tram in the main terminal.
“That was amazing,” says Robert, who couldn’t believe so many had gathered at 10 o’clock at night on a Saturday to welcome the veterans home. “Everyone was cheering and the bagpiper was playing. All of a sudden, Girl Scouts are handing me bags of candy and thanking me again for my service. Unbelievable.”
“The whole trip was great,” says John, who served in the Army and now resides in the Woodlands. “The organizers handled everything so nicely. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
The Honor Flight Needs You!
There are a number of ways you can help Honor Flight Central Florida pay tribute to our local veterans:
• Donate – Honor Flight Central Florida is a nonprofit organization that depends on community donations to pay for its flights in the spring and the fall.
• Be a Guardian – Guardians pay for the privilege to accompany the vets, but each guardian receives a lifetime of memories (and a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the nation’s capital) in return.
• Sponsor a Guardian – Paying for someone to go on an Honor Flight as a guardian is a priceless gift. Families can all serve as guardians together, or companies can sponsor their employees.
• Nominate a veteran – WWII veterans, especially, are getting difficult to find. If you know a vet from WWII, Korea, or Vietnam, encourage them to apply for a seat on an upcoming Honor Flight, or apply on their behalf.
• Greet the Vets – If you can’t participate in an Honor Flight, the next best thing is being there to greet and support the veterans as they leave and return home. The celebration is uplifting and inspiring for the vets and the revelers alike.
Want More Information?
For guardian/veteran application information, to donate, or to find out more about ways to support the veterans, go to HonorFlightCentralFlorida.org.