Hudson Valley's 30th Honor Flight Represents A Changing Of The Guard

HUDSON VALLEY, NY — One might expect the arrival of 68 military veterans from four wars to be a somber affair, but the raucous greeting they received at the Westchester County Airport was more akin to rock stars taking the stage.

The veterans arrived in a police motorcade to pomp and circumstance that included a brass band, color guard, cheers and hand-made signs.

The crowd roared the loudest when the four World War II veterans reached the tarmac. The veterans were just as enthusiastic making their way to the rope line to shake hands, snap selfies of their own and take time to mark the moment.

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Grey skies and periodic showers didn’t dampen the spirits of the veterans or the adoring, flag-waving crowd.

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Among the dozens of former servicemen on hand, was 98-year-old WWII vet, Army Major Al Nunan.

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He was joined by Vietnam veteran Thomas J. Giorgi who was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry just nine days after he arrived in the country and his unit was ambushed. Giorgi went on to work as an EMT in New York City, retiring only after the September 11 attacks.

Charles Colado served in both WWII and Korea. Vietnam veteran Ed Schmitt fought to bring his brothers in arms home from POW camps and Navy Pilot Joe Steinen was seriously injured after being shot down over Korea.

While the “Greatest Generation” received special attention from those waiting to send the veterans off to visit the monuments built in their honor in Washington, D.C. by a grateful nation, this year marked an inevitable milestone as the 30th Hudson Valley Honor Flight prepared for departure.

Frank Kimler, the Hudson Valley Honor Flight (HVHF) Board Chairman, said that his organization’s 30th mission is, in some ways, bittersweet. The group has been flying veterans free of charge on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Washington, D.C., where veterans are transported around the district by bus to visit war memorials, attend a dinner in their honor and then return home since 2014. Each veteran is escorted by a personal guardian and the HVHF flight team for the day-long trip.

“We all know that when our Vietnam vets came home they were not treated with the respect they certainly and honor that they certainly deserved,” Kilmer said. “This is a transition year. We used to be 100 percent World War II vets … Today marks the most Vietnam veterans we’ve ever had on a flight. And I can’t say just enough how much we are all sad to be losing those generations [WW II veterans], but we are energized, we are finally being able to help, god willing, our Vietnam veterans like my dad and my uncle to experience a different kind of honor flight — an honor flight that is the welcome home the you freak’n deserved.”

The greatest generation was still well-represented on the most recent Hudson Valley Honor Flight.

“Today we have nine veterans over the age on 90 on the flight — well, ten, if you count the pilot. ” Kimler joked. “I never get tired of that one.”

On a more serious note, Kimler said the group needs everyone’s help finding veterans who might be eligible for a future honor flight.

While priority has traditionally been given to WWII and Korean veterans, the organization said all veterans who have not yet participated in an Honor Flight are encouraged to apply. No matter your veteran’s role during their service, all war veterans are eligible.

“We have two planes to fill with deserving veterans — we are anxiously seeking local veterans to take part in the Honor Flight experience with us,” HVHF Executive Director Jennifer DeFrancesco said. “If you are a veteran from the Hudson Valley area, or know one that would like to participate, we want to hear from you.”

At the airport, it can sometimes be confusing which boarding zone you need to listen for before you can head for your flight. The honor flight organizers made it a little easier on the vets. As the branch of service anthem was played by the Roy C. Ketcham High School band, the vets rose, headed to the plane and on to a trip of a lifetime.

While grey, drizzly weather threatened the festivities outside the Million Air hangar at the Westchester County Airport, the weather 200 miles to the south in Washington D.C. was pleasant and spring-like. The day trip to the capital was described as “something both guardians and vets will remember for the rest of their lives.”

To follow along on the Hudson Valley vets’ journey, visit the Hudson Valley Honor Flight Facebook page. Applications for veterans to join a future Honor Flight can be found here.

In addition to veterans, HVHF is seeking guardians to accompany participating veterans. It is not required that guardians have any history of military service. It is recommended that each guardian be at least one generation younger than the veteran he or she accompanies. To help fund each flight, guardians pay a fee of $500. More info can be found here.

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