Cheering crowds, waving flags, photos being taken continuously and hugs for men and women whose only connection was gratitude – that’s how 90 veterans and their “Guardians” were greeted Tuesday evening as the Southwest Florida Honor Flight touched down at Punta Gorda airport.
Among the veterans honored on this flight was Beacon Publisher Dusty Hopkins, U.S. Air Force. His wife Cheryl served as his Guardian, which is the person who accompanies the veteran and makes sure he or she is “treated like a king or queen.” That is the instruction the Guardians receive during an orientation for anyone participating on a given Honor Flight.
Dusty served during Vietnam, but military life was already familiar to him.
“I’m an Army brat,” he explained. “My father was a full Colonel, and my uncle was a P-51 Mustang fighter pilot in England during World War II. I wanted to fly, so I started flying and prepping in high school. I got into the flight school for the Air Force and flew B-52s as a training officer, plus many tanker rides.”
Tuesday’s flight included 90 veterans. Initially there were five World War II veterans scheduled for this trip, but only three were actually able to make it. One of the group passed away in April, and the other was hospitalized two nights before the flight. This is why Honor Flight emphasizes priority for these oldest of our veterans. They want to provide a way for them to see the monuments and feel the gratitude of the country while they are still able.
This flight did include two female veterans and five Korean War veterans. The rest were in action in Vietnam, during peacetime, the Cold War or later wars. There were veterans from all branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard. The only requirement for participation is that the person has “worn the uniform.” They do not have to have seen combat or served overseas. Their service is still honored and needs to be recognized.
The program is one of many similar veteran-appreciation efforts around the state and the country. The one Dusty and Cheryl were on was sponsored and organized by Southwest Florida Honor Flight. Veterans from Charlotte, Sarasota, Desoto, Hardee, Hendry and Highlands Counties and immediate surrounding areas are included in the group’s programs.
Other counties are served by similar groups. There is also a Collier-Lee Honor Flight hub, serving those two counties. Both the local hubs are part of the national Honor Flight Network, based in Arlington, Virginia but managed locally by hub directors.
Honor Flight programs are totally volunteer organizations, and all donations go toward their mission. That mission is “to safely transport our veterans to Washington, D.C., to be honored at their memorials and receive the welcome home they deserve.”
In Florida, the trip is a one-day excursion, flying out early in the morning, spending time at each military memorial and returning back to the local airport in the evening.
Tuesday’s welcome home ceremony at Punta Gorda Airport took place close to 10 p.m. On their return the honorees gathered in the airport’s boarding area and then proceeded to parade through the large baggage claim area. Blue tape marked off the route for the honorees, with more than 1,000 family members and other well-wishers of all ages greeting them, dressed in patriotic colors, holding signs and waving flags.
The parade was led by Guns N Hoses Pipes n Drums of SWFL, a fully uniformed bagpipers group. They were followed by several local color guard teams, along with scout troops. Friends and strangers shook the participants’ hands, gave hugs, expressed thanks and celebrated as one big family.
Participation in the Honor Flight is by application, which can be found on each individual hub’s website (locally, that would be swflhonorflight.org or collierhonorflight.org). All branches of military service are welcome, and first preference goes to World War II veterans and veterans who have a terminal illness, regardless of when they served.
Veterans are treated as VIPs on the Honor Flight, paying nothing for the day. Guardians do pay $500, but most expenses are covered by donations. All Honor Flight groups are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, so donations are tax-deductible.
Prior to the establishment of the Honor Flight Network, many veterans had given up hope of seeing their memorials. Now they have hope, but time is running out for some veterans, and there are never too many expressions of “thank you” for those who are willing to put their lives on the line for the rest of us.
It wasn’t an easy trip for many. Memories of war can be painful and are often suppressed. There wasn’t any way to suppress much on this trip, as memories surrounding all of the vets who took part in this flight. Some, like Dusty, didn’t feel like the public honored Vietnam vets as much as others. This flight changed their mind a little … we hope.
“Because the time I served was in Vietnam, it felt like a lot of people said, ‘So, what?’ Then we had this flight, and suddenly we were ‘found.’ I can now proudly say that my service was important. Thank you, to everyone, for reminding me of that.”
For more information or to donate, contact swflhonorflight.org or check out the Honor Flight Network at honorflight.org.
See the November/December 2023 issue of Gasparilla Island Magazine for more of this story.