During World War II, some 16 million men and women willingly stepped forward to serve their country.
Now those veterans are being asked to do something that may be more of a challenge for this unassuming, quietly heroic generation – step up to take a free Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., to spend a day with fellow veterans touring the World War II and other military memorials.
“Our passion, our mission, is to fly the World War II generation, because of our dad,” said Lisa A. Wylie, president of Honor Flight Buffalo. She and her sister Jo-Anne helped found the local chapter in 2009 in memory of their father, Army Staff Sgt. Robert P. Wylie, who died in 2006 without ever seeing the majestic World War II memorial in Washington, which was dedicated in 2004.
The trip is geared toward World War II veterans, from the 1940s music played on the buses to the spontaneous chats among veterans about everything from basic training to chow. So far, the organization has flown 418 World War II veterans to see their memorial and other Washington sights.
But the passage of time makes it a challenge to fill the plane with World War II veterans. The war ended 70 years ago, and although estimates vary, the Department of Veterans Affairs says that more than 400 World War II veterans die every day.
“We’re against a time clock,” said Wylie, who has resorted to nearly pleading through email and social media for World War II veterans to fill the next Honor Flight. “It’s just so special to take all World War II veterans.”
As of Friday, 14 spots were still open for the May 30 flight, which will be preceded by a meet-and-greet May 2, where each veteran is introduced. Families may attend that event, as well as both the ceremonial early-morning send-off and applause-filled welcome home at Buffalo Niagara International Airport on the day of the trip.
“That trip created lifetime memories for our whole family,” said Drew Cerza, the man behind the annual National Buffalo Wing Festival whose father, Andrew J. Cerza, went on an Honor Flight in 2012 at age 88, with daughter Colleen Tripi as his guardian.
His father, a Marine during World War II, “was nervous, he was apprehensive” before the flight, Cerza said, not only about the physical demands of the day but also the possible emotional toll. But “it was the best thing he did,” said Cerza. “He was slowing down a lot, but he came back different; he really came back with some fire.”
The physical demands of the trip are far less than anyone might expect. The veterans are cared for by the Wylies, their aunt Dorothy Keough, other Honor Flight volunteers and each veteran’s individual guardian. Many veterans who can walk choose to bring a wheelchair for the day to reduce fatigue. If they must rent a wheelchair, Honor Flight Buffalo will reimburse them.
The trip’s precise coordination includes frequent bathroom stops and water breaks, as well as boxed breakfast and lunches of foods that are soft and easy to eat, followed by a group dinner before the return flight.
“My dad was worried beforehand, but he was never uncomfortable on that trip,” said Cerza. “They did everything right.”
The elder Cerza died April 8 and many photos of his Honor Flight trip were displayed at his services, his son said.
Each veteran’s guardian pays $375 for the flight and meals. If no one in the veteran’s family is able to go, Honor Flight will assign a guardian from its 2 1/2 year waiting list of people anxious to escort a veteran.
“I just called a volunteer guardian the other day who has been on the list since 2012, and he is ecstatic that he can go,” said Wylie. “The veteran that he is taking is from a farm family, and this is a very busy time of the year for them. So this man asked if I could get him a guardian.”
It is possible that more than 14 veterans will answer Wylie’s call. But Honor Flight has a plan for that, too, she said. “If we get an enormous response, we will put them on standby. And if they don’t get on this flight, we put them on the next one, which is in October.”
This year, because of increased community support, the organization will not only charter a plane and operate two buses, but will be able to pay for hotel rooms for several of the veterans who live far away and would otherwise be waking up in the wee hours to make the early-morning send-off on May 30. “We truly want this to be free for them,” said Wylie.
Wylie had a message for any veteran who might think he or she is too old, too ill or too limited to make the trip. “We can make it happen,” she said. “Just call me.”
Her number is 876-0304.