Honor Flights are not just seeing the monuments

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Veterans Ed Abbott (left) and Smoky Morrow visit the Korean War Monument as part of their Honor Flight trip.

OKEECHOBEE — Honor flights are meant for all veterans, said organization spokesman Ed Abbott. “Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude.”

Mr. Abbott is a Korean War veteran who served aboard the USS Abbot. He always jokingly told everyone it was his great-grandfather’s ship.

He has always enjoyed travel, and last year he was selling a motor home. One couple who came to look at the motor home noticed he was wearing a Korean War hat, and asked him if he was a veteran. When he said he was, they asked if he had ever heard of the Honor Flight. They explained it is a trip to Washington, D.C., to see the monuments that were built to honor the veterans for their service and sacrifice, and they invited him to go. They told him the organization could arrange everything if he wanted to make the trip. After some hesitation, he agreed.

One of the first things they explained was that the trip is not just a flight to see the monuments. The veterans are honored from the time they get out of their cars until they get back to their cars, in more ways than they can ever imagine, and it doesn’t cost a dime! Once the veterans fill out applications and are approved, they are assigned a guardian, and that person is with them all day long. They wait on the veterans hand and foot all day.

When he agreed to go, they told him they were guardians for Southeast Florida Honor Flight Inc. They go on flights together, each helping a different veteran. They asked him if he knew another veteran who might like to go along, and he said he had a WWII veteran friend, Smoky, who might be interested. He said his friend could hardly walk, though, and he was afraid he might not be able to make it on a trip like that. They told him that was not a problem at all, because every veteran is supplied a wheelchair and can use it or not.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
The Vietnam War Memorial was a special part of the Honor Flight trip for Veterans Ed Abbott (right) and Smoky Morrow.

The guardians came down and met Mr. Abbott and Smoky at the airport and bought them breakfast so they could discuss the flight. They each received a hat, a shirt and a bag to hold souvenirs. When it was time for the flight, they went to West Palm very early in the morning and met up with the group of about 80 veterans, 80 guardians and 15 or so other volunteers. Veterans who live on the coast are picked up by bus, but those in Okeechobee drive over on their own.

“From that minute on, I hesitate to tell you all the things they do, because they shouldn’t be printed. They should be a surprise,” he said. “I get choked up just thinking about it.”

He did say that as they fly to Washington, D.C., there are four or five surprises in honor of the veterans. One of the things he said could be printed was that as they flew, they asked everyone to be silent, and they played taps in honor of those who were scheduled to make the trip but passed away before they could. A uniformed man came down the aisle with a big poster with the veteran’s picture, name, medals and history on it. Behind him, another man carries a folded flag. “This is why I am so passionate about the Honor Flight,” he said. “It’s things like that. All day long, special things were done, and you never knew when to expect them.”

When they landed in Washington, D.C., 400 to 500 people were all lined up waiting to greet them as they arrived. “They were screaming and hollering and waving flags — kids, teenagers, football players, people off the street — all cheering and hollering and shaking our hands.”

From there, they were loaded onto four big, beautiful buses, and they were escorted through the streets by law enforcement. They went through red lights, stop signs, you name it. Nothing was more important than them. They were taken straight downtown to the monuments. A very special tribute to the veterans occurs at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but if you want to know what it is, you will have to sign up for a flight, he said.

When they got back to West Palm after the trip, they were welcomed again! This time they had politicians and retired generals shaking their hands and signs were everywhere welcoming them home.

If you are a WWII, Korean or Vietnam veteran, you need to go on one of these flights, he said. The younger veterans, too, but they are working on the older ones first. “Vietnam veterans, it is time you were welcomed home. There are stories of Vietnam veterans who say it changed their lives. They were able to put it in the past,” he said. “They were never welcomed home, and they need this.”

Every person in the Southeast Florida Honor Flights Inc. organization is a volunteer. Not one person is paid. When the guardians go on the flights, they pay their own way. When Mr. Abbott returned from his flight, he was so impressed, he began spreading the word to everyone he met and soon, he was asked to come over and take a training class. He said it means so much to him to encourage other veterans to go and experience what he did. He is willing to come and talk to a group or an individual, whatever it takes to get the word out. Just give him a call at 863-532-9419 or email him at edabbott34@gmail.com.

Normally, there are four flights each year, but the last two were canceled due to the COVID-29 virus. The next one is in September if all goes as planned. Each flight costs over $120,000. They are paid for by fundraisers and donations. They leave at about 4 a.m. and return the same night. It’s a long day but well worth it, he said.

The organization was started by one man, Earl Morse, who was a retired Air Force captain. He worked in a vetera’s hospital and wanted to honor the veterans he had taken care of for 27 years. When he realized that the majority of the veterans who served our country would never be physically or financially able to go see the WWII monuments in Washington, D.C,, he decided he would try to get them there himself. In December 2004, Mr. Morse, who was a private pilot, asked two of his WWII veteran patients if they would like to fly with him, free of charge, to see the memorials. Both veterans accepted enthusiastically.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Veterans Smoky Morrow (right front) and Ed Abbott (left front) discuss the Honor Flight with guardians Art and Patty Eberhart.

The following year, he recruited six more pilots to help him transport more veterans to visit the memorial, with the stipulation that all expenses would be paid by the pilots and that the pilots would personally escort the veterans around the city all day. Soon six planes flew 12 veterans to Washington, D.C. By the end of the year, 137 WWII veterans had been transported to see their memorial.

In 2006, they began using commercial flights exclusively and began partnering with other community leaders. Jeff Miller of Hendersonville, N.C., began hiring airlines and flying 30, 40, 50 at a time, said Mr. Abbott.

In February 2006, Mr. Morse and Mr. Miller met, combined their efforts and called themselves Honor Flight Network. Now, they have flown over 250,000 veterans to see the memorials, all completely free of charge. There is a waiting list, but due to their age, WWII veterans are given priority, he explained.

To read more about Honor Flights, visit the website at honorflightssefl.org or visit them on Facebook at Facebook.com/honorflight. You can also call them at 855-FLY-A-VET (359-2838).

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