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Fate of Honor Flight Buffalo up in air after organization dissolves

Honor Flight Buffalo, which has flown 500 World War II veterans to Washington since it was founded in 2010, is disbanding, the board of directors announced Friday.

“You know I’ll get emotional about this,” President Lisa Wylie said in a phone interview, her voice breaking. “But it is a huge, huge time commitment.”

Although the group has had many volunteers through the years, nobody has emerged as a leader with the time to shoulder the burden of organizing the flights, Wylie said.

In addition to Wylie and her sister Jo-Anne, the board consists of their father’s sister, Dorothy Keough, and Debbie and J.R. Watkins.

“None of us is getting any younger. Aunt Dorothy just turned 80 this past week, and we have been taking a hard look at this,” said Wylie, who recently retired from her full-time job. “We decided that we have accomplished a lot, we got 500 vets there, and it’s time to get our lives back.”

Wylie estimated that organizing each trip required hundreds of hours of work for the five board members and other volunteers.

In addition to raising funds so that every veteran could fly for free, each trip required repeated and detailed communications with every veteran to determine his or her abilities and needs. Veterans and guardians were welcomed at a lunch meet-and-greet before each flight.

The flight itself, for which volunteers arrived as early as 3:30 a.m. and stayed as late as midnight, required minute-by-minute organization of transportation, meals and events for bus loads of elderly and often frail veterans and their helpers.

The group lacked volunteers ready to step up and fill board roles, and the board members were unwilling to pass the reins to people they don’t know, Wylie said. So the board decided to dissolve the group to eliminate their own liability.

Any money left in the group’s coffers will be donated to the national Honor Flight office, “to carry on the mission of Honor Flight,” Wylie said.

Wylie said about 30 World War II veterans remain on the Honor Flight Buffalo waiting list, and if the national office approves, she intends to call every one, thank each for their service, and offer him or her a copy of a book and a DVD about the Washington memorials.

“That will bring closure to us, by notifying those vets,” said Wylie.

In the email, the board wrote, “We all have a lot of be proud of in terms taking 500 World War II veterans to Washington in order for them to experience the trip of a lifetime. We brought everyone home safe and sound and judging from the smiles on their faces, all 18 flights were a complete success.”

The sisters, along with Charles “Dan” Dunkle, founded the group, which took about 25 veterans on each of two flights annually to Washington to see the World War II and other military monuments. Each veteran was accompanied by a guardian, who paid his or her own way; volunteers stepped forward to escort veterans if a friend or family member was not available.

The Wylie sisters and their aunt did the work in memory of the sisters’ father, who served in World War II but died before he could see the World War II memorial.

The Wylies had said in the past that they considered their mission a limited one, to serve World War II veterans. And as years passed, the numbers of veterans of that war began to dwindle.

Last spring, when it looked as though the May flight could not be filled, Lisa Wylie issued a call for World War II veterans to apply.

After a Buffalo News article appeared calling on veterans to step forward, both that flight and an October flight were filled, and a waiting list formed.

“I’m really hopeful that there is somebody out there” to do the work she and the other board members did to form a new Honor Flight hub, said Wylie. If another group stepped forward, “I would be thrilled,” Wylie said.

She would be willing to share her expertise with such a group, but added:

“I’m looking forward to getting my life back.”