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Wind beneath their wings: Albany-based Honor Flight will fly local veterans on June 11

The 30 World War II veterans who were stuck on a waiting list when Honor Flight Buffalo dissolved in January will see their memorial on June 11 with a little help from an Albany-area Honor Flight.

More than 10 members of Leatherstocking Honor Flight, which serves 15 counties around Albany and parts of Massachusetts and Vermont, drove to Western New York to meet Saturday morning with 28 local volunteer candidates in the George F. Lamm American Legion Post, Williamsville. The group discussed the June flight, which is already scheduled but not full, and the establishment of a strong core of Western New York volunteers to keep the veterans flying long after that flight.

“After driving out here this morning, 270 miles, believe me, I’d like this to a be a quick transition,” said Leatherstocking Honor Flight member Matt Sparks, drawing a rueful laugh.

Rhonda Cooper, a coordinator of the Leatherstocking group, said she had been given binders from outgoing Honor Flight Buffalo officials containing applications from 50 World War II veterans and 85 Korean War veterans – the latter group receiving second priority because they are slightly younger. “World War II veterans have priority for any flight,” said Cooper.

The Leatherstocking group escorts about five flights a year to Washington and has flown some 1,500 veterans, they said.

Although only about five of the volunteer candidates had been active with Honor Flight Buffalo, most had some connection. Joe Harick of the Town of Tonawanda has attended as a Patriot Guard Rider. “Whatever I can offer, I’m going to do,” he said.

Kit Welsby of Orchard Park happened to be traveling through the Baltimore airport with her father, Charlie Moyer, a World War II Navy veteran, when an Honor Flight arrived to the usual enthusiastic welcome. “We immediately came home and submitted an application for him, and he’s going on the June flight with my son,” she said.

Siblings Diane DiTondo of Tonawanda, Bob Schlehr of Wheatfield and Ken Schlehr of North Tonawanda, with his wife, Roberta, all attended to see how they could help out. “I read in the paper that people were needed and I ‘volun-told’ them,” said DiTondo. “Our dad didn’t have a chance to do this.”

The meeting, which included practical discussions about everything from fundraising to borrowing wheelchairs, was punctuated by funny and touching stories.

“You leave with a planeload of elderly veterans and you come back that night with a group of 18- and 19-year-olds,” said Al Winfield from Leatherstocking.

“These guys are older now, some are hunched over and they walk slower,” said Greg Furlong, president of Leatherstocking Honor Flight. “But these are the guys who got it done. You can’t call these guys heroes, they won’t accept it. They say, ‘I’m not a hero; the heroes didn’t come back.’ ”

The local organization faces one hurdle: The national Honor Flight office has frowned upon the re-establishment of a Buffalo hub. In January, Jane Julian, national hub director for Honor Flight, told a would-be volunteer in an email, “Over the past few years Honor Flight has decided to try and keep 200 miles between our existing hubs so there so there is no conflict among the hubs or confusion on the part of the veterans regarding soliciting donations and accepting applications. With Honor Flight Buffalo shutting down we do not see the need for a new hub in that area. …”

The Leatherstocking organizers are confident that they can overcome that problem, either by convincing the national office to bend its rules, by using Leatherstocking Honor Flight as an umbrella organization, or, if necessary, operating the organization outside the network.

“We are here to honor veterans, and we are going to honor veterans,” said Furlong. “There was a hub here, there should be a hub here, it doesn’t make sense not to have a hub here.” The group applauded.

At the end of the meeting, organizers asked that anyone who can help send an email to BillSchaaf@aol.com. World War II veterans who might want to take the June 11 flight from Buffalo to the nation’s capital should fill out the application at leatherstockinghonorflight.org.

Soon, the Leatherstocking organizers hope, local people will be running the flights out of the Buffalo airport.

“We’ll stay as long as we need to, but we’re not going to overstay our welcome,” said Furlong.

email: aneville@buffnews.com