FORT MYERS, Florida / News-Press.com / September 27, 2010
By Chris Umpierre
1:10 A.M. — The day began with Southwest Florida International Airport’s color guard escorting area World War II veterans through Concourse B to the security checkpoint.
It ended with those veterans sobbing at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Seventy World War II veterans from Lee, Collier, Sarasota, Hendry, Manatee and Charlotte counties received an all-expenses paid, one-day trip Sunday to the World War II Memorial and other D.C. monuments.
None of the veterans, ages 82 to 98, had ever seen the memorial, which opened in 2004.
(Terry Allen Williams/news-press.com)
“There’s a lot of closure involved with this,” said Don Veccoli, trip organizer and Southwest Florida Honor Flight founder. “There’s tremendous healing that went on today.”
Southwest Florida Honor Flight, which is part of a national nonprofit, paid for the $37,000 trip via donations from Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Springs and a Bradenton Disabled American Veterans chapter.
“I’m pretty sure this is going to be emotional for me,” North Fort Myers’ Thomas Hutchison said before boarding the group’s flight. Hutchison, 82, served the Army in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars during a 37-year military career.
“It’s emotional because I’m grateful for everybody who gave us this opportunity to go.,” Hutchinson said. “I wouldn’t be able to pay for this.”
With an estimated 900 World War II veterans dying each day, the National Honor Flight aims to fly as many veterans to Washington as possible. The Southwest Florida branch has flown 286 to D.C. after Sunday’s trip.
Nationally, the nonprofit took 17,600 World War II veterans to D.C. in 2009.
Ken Boggs, commander of the Disabled American Veterans Bradenton chapter, said his group didn’t hesitate to donate $6,000 for the trip.
“These guys have never seen their own memorial and they’ll probably never get another chance to see it,” Boggs said.
Each of the vets got a World War II Memorial ballcap, T-shirt, backpack and briefcase, Veccoli said. They had free motorcoach services in Fort Myers and Washington and were greeted by a color guard in both airports.
“We do this to honor the contributions and sacrifices the veterans have made to protect our nation,” said Robert Cohen, Southwest Florida International’s TSA Federal Security Director.
Besides the memorial, the group planned to visit the Korean War, Navy, Vietnam and Iwo Jima memorials. They planned to place a wreath at the tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
Veccoli said the veterans usually start the trip in a lighthearted mood, but that changes when they arrive at the memorial.
The National Honor Flight program has D.C. children write letters to the veterans. The kids deliver the letters at the memorial.
“That’s when they lose it and the emotions come out,” Veccoli said.
Bradenton’s Delbert Kiefer, who was with the 10th Armored Division during World War II, planned to think about his deceased military friends.
“All of my buddies in the Army are dead. I’m the only one left,” said the 86-year-old Kiefer, who was seated next to his sergeant in a Jeep during World War II when a bullet came through the windshield and killed his mentor.
Hutchison, one of 20 Lee County residents on the trip, said most of his military friends are deceased.
“The good Lord has been with me all these years, and thank God I lived to see this (memorial),” Hutchison said.
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