Established in January 2015, Flight to Honor Polk honors United States military veterans by transporting them to Washington, DC, to visit the war memorials erected to honor their service. It’s sponsored by Polk County Veteran’s Council and funded by GiveWell Community Foundation through tax deductible donations.
Based in Polk County, Florida, the mission is a one-day event departing from Lakeland Linder International Airport early in the morning and returning in the evening. Any Veteran who has not previously participated in an Honor Flight or Flight to Honor is eligible for the mission.
A standard commercial aircraft, such as an Airbus 320, is chartered exclusively for the mission. Approximately 180 veterans and guardians are manifest on the flight. In Washington, DC, visits include the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Wall Memorial.
Veterans are able to visit the memorial for their specific war service period with fellow veterans who served during that period.
Veterans travel at no cost, each accompanied by a guardian. Guardians donate $500 for the opportunity to engage with a veteran and learn about their military experiences. Often, this experience is an emotional event. It takes on added significance when in the presence of another veteran having similar war experience.
The visit includes Arlington National Cemetery. Being present for the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a special experience.
Below are letters from a Veteran and Guardian from the last mission on April 27,2021. The first letter from Bill Geasa, a Veteran who went on the last mission, explaining the impact it had on him.
"As a Cold War veteran, I was one of the younger participants even at 65. The trip was a lasting memory for both family and career related reasons, yet it became so much more. My father in law and a great uncle served in WWII, my wife lost an uncle in Korea, and my dad served in Vietnam.
Both my uncle and father in law rarely spoke about their service, yet shared with me stories they had not told their immediate family once I put on the uniform. In particular, my wife’s dad had shoveled ashes out of a set of concentration camp ovens in Germany, then provided a proper burial. Obviously, that gave me much to reflect upon at the WWII Memorial.
Being infantry, I strongly connected with observing the squad portrayed crossing a rice paddy at the Korean War Memorial. Given that the names of those killed in action are being added certainly excused the construction, and gave my wife comfort when I shared how Uncle Harold’s name would soon be on display.
Since my dad returned safely in 1970 after his tour in Vietnam, my focus was on a different name that is on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial. During my dad’s tour, I babysat the children of Captain Robert F. Coady and wore his bracelet since he was first listed as MIA. I shouldn’t feel any guilt, yet that emotion came back strongly as I touched his name on that wall. I still have my dad to enjoy life with, even at 88. I would love to get him on a Flight to Honor, but health issues prevent him from getting to have my experience.
While I also have a relative buried at Arlington (my dad’s brother who was with the Air Force Security Police and also was a Secret Service agent for President Johnson and Nixon), my thoughts were much broader during this visit since I am also a retired educator, both for the Army and public education.
While the land Arlington occupies now did not become THE national cemetery until after the Civil War, several soldier’s remains from as far back as our Revolutionary War have been re-interred there. The Trace Adkins song “Arlington” kept running through my head as I considered the story behind every gravestone I passed during my walk through such hallowed ground.
There is much, much more that I could share regarding this trip, especially the relationships built with other veterans and the guardians who assisted each one of us. But, that is an ongoing book, especially as I am now privileged to assist in future Flight to Honor trips from Polk County."
And here's a letter from me. I'm a United States Navy Submarine Veteran and had the privilege to go on the last mission. It impacted me so much that I decided to make it MY mission to raise as much as I can for the next Flight to Honor in April 2022.
“On April 27th, 2021, I got to participate in the Flight to Honor Mission #6. We escorted eighty six Veterans from Lakeland to Washington D.C. Each Veteran had their own Guardian. My Veteran was George Newell, an 87 year old Korean War Army Veteran who has the firmest handshake I’ve ever felt.
We got to the DC area around 8:15. The first stop was the World War II Memorial. We took a group picture and looked around at the memorial. George made sure I got a picture of the quote by Oveta Culp Hobby - "WOMEN WHO STEPPED UP WERE MEASURED AS CITIZENS OF THE NATION, NOT AS WOMEN...THIS WAS A PEOPLE'S WAR, AND EVERYONE WAS IN IT." for his wife Beverly. By the way, George and Beverly have been married for 64 years. Wow!!
Next up was the Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, and finally Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We watched the changing of the Honor Guard and talked about how neither of us could do that .
Throughout the day we walked, talked, and laughed... a lot. We were fed well by Chick-fil-a, Arby’s, and Mission BBQ. I never went hungry, and that’s saying a lot coming from me .
On the plane ride home they did a mail call. For those that don’t know, when you’re deployed mail call is one of the happiest times because you get mail or packages from your loved ones back home. They called out each Veterans name over the intercom and every one of them got a thick manila envelope. Inside were drawings, cards, and letters from school kids thanking them for their service and sacrifice. There was also a certificate from our new House of Representatives member Scott Franklin, who was there when we landed and shook every one of the veterans and guardians hands as we got off the plane. Some also had letters from family members telling them how proud they are and how much they love them. As George opened his envelope and read the first card I could tell he was getting emotional. He looked at the picture on the second paper and it was getting worse. I asked him if he was alright and he said, “This is the stuff that really gets to me.” Same here George, same here. When he got to the sealed envelopes he said he’d have to read those later at home. We put everything back in the envelope and he held on to it for the rest of the trip like it was the most important thing ever. I got up to use the bathroom and as I was walking down the aisle I could see tears streaming down the faces of Veterans and guardians alike. It was an incredible moment.
We landed and were greeted by a water cannon salute, fire trucks with American Flags hanging from the ladders, and so many people that it took 20 min to get through the crowd. I shook more hands yesterday than I have in the last five years. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience for George, but I plan to keep doing these as many times as I can.
Thank you to all those who came out to greet us last night and everyone who worked so hard behind the scenes to pull off a perfect day."
Please help us keep these trips going by donating. These trips are life changing for all involved and I'm honored to be a part of them.
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