By: Jarret Romanello
Photos: Sloan Mathis
It was 3:00 am when 75 local veterans boarded buses to head to Palm Beach International Airport to take part in the Southeast Florida Honor Flight on May 21st.
Upon arrival at the predawn rally point, volunteer guardians who pay their own way to accompany the veterans joined them to provide physical assistance and offer emotional support on the trip. The busses departed under police and fire vehicle escort with well-wishers standing by saluting and waving American flags. In the glare of red and blue flashing lights, motorcycle clubs joined the convoy to pay tribute to the dignitaries inside.
When 98-year-old WWII Veteran Jeannette Fenoli arrived at the airport, the Patriot Guard Riders greeted her. Fenoli was one of four WWII Veterans on the flight, and the retired Second Lieutenant Army nurse had her son Randy as her guardian. “In the 1940s, woman service members were treated differently, and my mom deserves the celebrity status,” said Randy Fenoli.
After takeoff, Honor Guard members paid tribute to Veterans slated to attend who passed away prior to the scheduled flight. The Honor Guard carried “Flags of Our Heroes” throughout the day in remembrance of three Veterans who didn’t make the trip. “We leave no veteran behind,” said Honor Guard member Brad Havrilla.
When the plane landed and taxied to the runway, the Honor Flight was met with a water cannon salute by the fire department, welcoming the veterans to the nation’s capital.
First stop – the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. 3rd Infantry Regiment “Old Guard” sentinels paid tribute to the Honor Flight Veterans by purposely scraping their steel toe taps against the parade deck during the changing of the guard.
On his 31st Honor Flight, Dr. Shamsher Singh escorted 94-year-old Marine Corps Veteran Glenn Galtere. Galtere, a WWII and Korean War veteran, was one of two survivors when his unit was attacked during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir on November 2, 1950. When they arrived at the WWII Memorial, Galtere said, “This is paradise.”
At the Vietnam Wall, the flight’s 52 Vietnam Veterans remembered the 58,281 young men and women who never came home from the jungle. Veteran Gary Merritt lost six childhood friends during the war and found his best friend Jerry Snyder’s name etched on Panel 32W.
Vietnam War Veteran Terry Braum served with the 5th Battalion 12 Infantry, 199th Light Infantry Brigade during the Lightning Offensive into the Cambodian border sanctuaries in 1972. Braum brought a list of 22 names of soldiers who died in the combat operation. “Going to the wall and seeing their names memorialized is a lifetime of therapy,” Braum said.
SFC Ralph Walton of the United States Army Vietnam War Commemoration Unit pinned Veteran Chuck Gazarek with a special lapel pin at the Vietnam Wall. At 75 years old, Gazarek continues to serve today and gave SFC Walton a lapel pin from the National Navy UDT Seal Museum in Fort Pierce where he volunteers. “We are honoring all those who serve today,” Gazarek said.
On the trip home, the Honor Flight held “Mail Call.” Each veteran received letters from students, relatives and politicians thanking them for their service. “They thought of everything,” said Korean War Veteran Stanley Wolk.
And when the plane arrived back at Palm Beach International Airport, the fun really began.” Operation Homecoming” marched the veterans through the concourse to the beat of pipe and drum and an impressive crowd of men, women and children waved and cheered as the Veterans made their way through the airport.
For the Vietnam Veterans who didn’t receive a friendly homecoming, this was their moment to be welcomed home by a grateful community.
Talking about the Southeast Florida Honor Flight experience, Gazarek said, “Not only do they honor veterans, but they also help heal the invisible wounds of war.”
Southeast Florida Honor Flight is part of a nationwide network that sends veterans on a free day-long trip to Washington D.C. to visit war memorials built in their honor. The non-profit organization’s volunteer staff coordinates four flights each year through private donations and various fundraising efforts. Flight priority is given to ailing WWII and Korean War Veterans.
For more information about Southeast Florida Honor Flight, visit: www.honorflightsefl.org