U.S. Army veteran Sven Tilly never will forget experiencing the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. He got the opportunity to watch the silent, solemn ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a Villages Honor Flight mission in April. “It was unbelievable,” said Tilly, of Summerfield.
“I’m not shocked easily after all these years that I’ve been around, but that was something else.” Today is Veterans Day, but local organizations like Villages Honor Flight work tirelessly to honor Tilly and other veterans year-round. This year the group is marking its 10th year and 57 missions.
Witnessing the changing of the guard is just one moving experience veterans have on Honor Flight missions, where they travel to Washington, D.C., to tour war memorials and monuments from their respective service. Villages Honor Flight took 25 veterans and 25 guardians on its first mission to Washington, D.C., in 2012. So far it has taken 1,959 veterans to Washington, D.C., and given 316 veterans a flightless, virtual experience.
“This year was a record year with 400 veterans, and I think it’s also safe to say that we probably had an excess of 25,000 volunteer hours this year,” said Joe Hambright, Villages Honor Flight chairman.
The Villages is no stranger to military service. In fact, about 16% of the more than 126,000 Villagers have donned a U.S. military uniform.
Of the more than 1,900 veterans who have participated in a local mission, 882 served in the U.S. Army, 582 in the U.S. Navy, 301 in the U.S. Air Force, 153 in the U.S. Marine Corps, 23 in the U.S. Coast Guard, 13 in the U.S. Merchant Marines and five in other unspecified services, according to the organization.
The local hub is part of the national Honor Flight Network, which has more than 128 hubs across the country. The national network has given more than 245,000 U.S. veterans an Honor Flight experience, according to its website.
Shaking hands with thankful students, etching the name of a fellow solider on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and returning to a cheerful, patriotic crowd are just a few special moments that veterans coming home from a Villages Honor Flight mission often say left them speechless or with tears in their eyes.
For many participants, the journey is an emotional one.
For some, it’s the first time they’ve laid eyes on the memorial dedicated to the war or military branch in which they served. For many Vietnam veterans, they feel it’s the first real recognition of their service as well as the welcome home they never had.
For U.S. Army veteran Brian O’Connell, the Honor Flight mission brought him a lot of closure.
“We were never treated this well (after the Vietnam war),” the Leesburg resident said.
Many women veterans share a similar sentiment, often saying it’s their husbands who are assumed to be veterans and thanked for their service.
Sue Roper, president of Tri-County Women Veterans, said these women finally are recognized on their Honor Flight mission.
In fact, this year was historic for Villages Honor Flight as it hosted the first all-women honor flight in Florida.
In May, the hard work of members of the Tri-County Women Veterans came to fruition when the $100,000 they raised paid for the all-women mission, Roper said. More than 100 women veterans took part in the historic mission, both as guardians and participants.
“It’s so heartwarming,” said Roper, a U.S. Navy veteran and resident of the Village of Bonita. “I can’t believe it, and I can’t believe we have so much support.”
Ruth Jones, a World War II Women’s Army Corps veteran, was blown away by the experience.
“It was fabulous,” the Village of Bonita resident said. “It was just overwhelming. It was really great, and I had a wonderful time.”
Like many World War II veterans who participate in a mission, Jones received a standing ovation from the crowd when the mission returned home.
For the hundreds of Villages Honor Flight volunteers — including guardians, medical staff, flight directors and countless others — all of the hard work is worth making the veterans feel special.
“When you see the twinkle in their eyes, it’s all worth it,” said Peter Tetrault, vice president of administration for Villages Honor Flight and a Village of Winifred resident.
Guardian Robert Elstad agreed.
“I just got hooked,” Elstad said. “It’s a wonderful day all about them, and it’s a great way to serve the people who serve our country. I mean, it brings tears to my eyes.”
Guardians spend 24 hours with their veteran on their trip, and the experience is an honor, said Sunny Watson, a U.S. Army veteran who lives in the Village of Glenbrook.
Since the beginning, Villages Honor Flight’s missions have been made possible by the endless support from the community and its donors.
It costs $600 to send one veteran on a mission. It costs $85,000 to $90,000 to host one mission to D.C. and $5,000 to host a flightless mission, said Wayne Grunewald, Villages Honor Flight CFO/treasurer.
To keep the missions going, Villages Honor Flight hosts several fundraisers throughout the year to send as many veterans on missions as possible, said Duane Roemmich, public relations and media coordinator for Villages Honor Flight.
Since 2012, the organization has raised $2.4 million through donations from the public and guardians as well as fundraisers, said Grunewald, of the Village of Sunset Pointe.
Some of its biggest partners are Parady Financial Group, Fresh Made Kitchen Restaurant Group, City Fire American Oven and Bar, Cody’s Original Roadhouse and the Suleiman Family Restaurants.
“A lot of these veterans are our clients, and we’re part of The Villages community,” said Linda Bennett, director of events at Parady. “Greg (Parady, CEO and president) gives back to those who have been good to us. He’s very passionate, and veterans are his No. 1.”
Parady has supported Villages Honor Flight since the hub started. The company also has honored four veterans by sponsoring them on four Villages Honor Flight missions. It also hosts a celebration each year with Villages Honor Flight to pay tribute to local veterans and present a donation.
“Our relationship with Villages Honor Flight is the best and we’re very honored to be part of it,” Bennett said.
Various restaurants also host fundraisers throughout the year and donate portions of their earnings to Villages Honor Flight, said Roemmich, of the Village of Collier.
Moving into the 2023 season, the hub is making several changes to reduce stress on its volunteers while maximizing the experience for the veterans, said Hambright, a Village of Amelia resident.
The schedule for 2023 will include two missions to Washington, D.C., on April 19 and Sept. 27 and one flightless mission Nov. 19. A second flightless mission hasn’t been scheduled yet.
The ratio of veterans to guardians also is changing from one veteran to one guardian to two veterans to one guardian. This change is being made because veterans attending missions now often are younger and more mobile than previous generations, Hambright said.
The minimum age requirement also is dropping to 78 years old, and a fit-to-fly form from a doctor no longer is required.
The application process is on a first-come, first-served basis based on the veterans war period. Older veterans, such as those who served in World War II, still will jump to the top of the list if they apply.
Honor Flight missions are free for veterans. Any U.S. veteran who served at least one day in active duty is eligible to participate in an Honor Flight mission. Villages Honor Flight serves veterans in Lake, Sumter, Marion, Citrus and Hernando counties.
“The organization cannot be beat,” said Bill Amtower, a U.S. Air Force veteran and Village of Piedmont resident. “They really know what they’re doing, and they do a wonderful job.”
For more information about Villages Honor Flight or to make a donation, visit villageshonorflight.org.
Staff writer Veronica Wernicke can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5307, or email@example.com.