The Stewart Airport terminal departure area was wall to wall people as hundreds came out to cheer veterans who were treated to a day in Washington, D.C. on Saturday.
It was the 11th Honor Flight – in the Hudson Valley those trips depart alternately from Stewart at Newburgh and Westchester County Airport at White Plains.
This latest flight included 82 veterans from World War II and the Korean War.
A primary focus of the Hudson Valley Honor Flight organization, in addition to bringing vets who might otherwise have trouble getting to D.C. to visit their monuments, is to provide veterans with a grand reception; one they certainly deserve but, in some cases, had never received.
These are some of the responses veterans gave as they were about to board their flight to Washington.
Nick Viola, a WWII combat veteran: “Marvelous. Family is here; you guys are all here helping us celebrate. My goodness, what a real surprise. I heard about it and of course, I’m so thankful and grateful I’m here.”
Marvin Needleman, a WWII Army veteran: “Doing great,” “very excited.”
Al Hubner, a WWII veteran of the 94th Infantry Division: “I didn’t expect such a reception here!”
Donald Katey, also a WWII veteran: “I waited for this. I never knew we were going to get any appreciation for what we did. Oh yeah, I’ve been in tears all day.”
It’s no secret that the population of WWII veterans, in particular, is dwindling. Hudson Valley Honor Flight Chairman Frank Kimler said although many national honor flight organizations have had less than half of their passengers as WWII vets and in some cases have stopped looking to find WWII vets at all for flights, Hudson Valley Honor Flight is still continuing to have their majority of passengers from WWII.
Many of these WWII veterans are well into their 90s now and that is why Kimler said it is so important to continue to seek out and to bring members of the “Greatest Generation” on Honor Flights.
“These guys, a lot of them, haven’t left their house in a long time. No one has talked to them in a while. They live in nursing homes, some of them. And so, to be treated like this and honored, they go back and they don’t forget this. I mean, they don’t sleep; they’re so excited,” said Kimler. “It’s funny, on every flight back, there’s not one veteran that sleeps. Sometimes, their grandkids will go and they’ll be sleeping but, the veterans never fall asleep. They’re pumped,” he said.
The Hudson Valley Honor Flights have been such a success, growing and evolving with each flight, that the organization has expanded their efforts from hosting one flight a year initially to four flights a year currently and are even planning to schedule a fifth one. HV Honor Flight Co-chairman Brian Maher said they were not expecting this evolution and see now that they are creating a culture for those who want to give back to veterans.
“We didn’t expect that the impact would be so strong on non-veterans; on, not the individuals that we’re serving: the Korea, WWII, Vietnam veterans, but their families and their friends and the people that need an outlet to be patriots, to thank veterans for their service. The way our organization has branded itself, we’ve reached out through social media, through the news outlets and really got our message out there saying, ‘This organization is for anyone who wants to give back and honor our veterans.’ So, we kind of created a culture, if you will, where you shake a veteran’s hand and you say, ‘Thank you for your service’ and then you ask them, ‘Have you ever heard of the Hudson Valley Honor Flight?’ and we keep those conversations going every day,” said Maher.
The flights, however, are expensive, costing about $65,000-$100,000 per flight.
Saturday, Shop Rite made a surprise donation of $100,000 to the organization toward that end.
Hudson Valley Honor Flight will hold their 12th journey out of Westchester Airport on May 14 and will be honoring their 1,000th veteran served on September 10 for their 13th flight, which will be at Stewart again.