Spend a Day With Your Hero
Marlis Perez Rivera, National Military Family Association Volunteer, Tampa, FL
When it comes to describing a hero, we tend to think of someone who possesses some supernatural power. What we do not immediately realize is that World War II heroes, who have fought for the freedom we enjoy today, are simply people with amazing love and strength in their hearts. I recently had the unique privilege of meeting some of these veterans, honoring them, and listening to their stories about the history that unfolded before their eyes.
“These vets feel like they were never honored when they came home from the war. Our job is to make them feel as special and as honored as possible,” says Deborah Stewart, volunteer for Honor Flight of West Central Florida. The nonprofit organization provides all expense paid flights for World War II veterans in the Tampa Bay area to visit their memorials in Washington, D.C. Deborah is involved in a number of organizations supporting the military, but she describes working with World War II veterans as being the most rewarding one.
Anyone can participate in joining the vets on these one-day trips. “You pay $400 and you escort your vet. There are 150 people on the plane per trip, with the average cost of a flight ranging between $50,000 and $60,000. All operating costs come from donations. Volunteering to be a guardian is crucial to serving these men who fought for our country. “Most of them [the vets] are in their eighties and nineties, some of them are in a wheelchair and some of them are on oxygen,” Deborah describes.
Ninety percent of the guardians do not know the vets that they will be accompanying until orientation day. Guardians help vets to their seat, fill out their paperwork and get their shirts and their hats. On the plane, veterans are given bags of treats and cookies that were donated for the occasion.
When they get off the plane, hundreds of people stand there to receive them and shake their hands. Everyone thanks them for their service and welcomes them home, as if they had just came back from war. A group of ladies, dressed in the spirit of the 40s are waiting excitedly to shake their hands and kiss them. “Someone from each division of the military goes, the general and colonel from MacDill Air Force Base usually go,” Deborah says. The general gives out his coin to each one of them, shakes their hand and greets them.
The vets spend well over twelve hours at the event, and continually express their gratitude for being honored for their service. “That’s what it’s all about; it’s a very powerful thing,” Deborah says, trying to hold back her tears.
A particular story that was very moving for Deborah is about a vet whom she helped to his seat while constantly telling her he did not deserve to be there. He said, “I was in the war. But, I’m not like some of these men that they were out on the front line, fighting for their lives. I don’t deserve to be here because all I did was cook for them. I was there and I saw it, but I just cooked. I don’t deserve this.”
This year, let’s help all our combat vets feel honored. They are our unique insight into history and the reason we enjoy our freedom today. I can’t think of a better way to give back.
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