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Virtual honor flight brings Washington to Miami

Vietnam Veteran John Wikel salutes as he enters the T.C. Doherty Auditorium underneath a military saber arch for the first virtual honor flight for residents of the Community Living Center at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center.

Vietnam Veteran John Wikel salutes as he enters the T.C. Doherty Auditorium underneath a military saber arch for the first virtual honor flight for residents of the Community Living Center at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center.

Friday, February 17, 2017

As the Veterans arrived for their honor flight on the morning of Feb. 11, they were welcomed as heroes. With sabers raised to form an arch, two uniformed JROTC cadets waited at the doorway as each Veteran and their escort entered the auditorium. Volunteers with smiling faces escorted each of the guests of honor to their reserved seating area. One by one they arrived and patiently waited to embark on their honor flight. However, these Veterans were not making the trip to our nation’s capital; they were about to experience the first virtual honor flight for Veteran residents of the Community Living Center at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center in Miami.

There were many tears, cheers and smiles as the Veterans received the full honor flight experience, including welcoming and homecoming ceremonies, mail call, USO show, honor guard salute and a video tour of our nation’s monuments.

For one Veteran who took part in the virtual honor flight, the event helped him come to terms with his experience upon returning from combat.

“When I came back from Vietnam through Seattle, Washington, I was cursed at, spit at and insulted,” said William Kuschick, an Army Veteran who served in Vietnam in 1970. “The event today was just another one of those tributes that was a long time coming. For those of us who experienced these events here, we had tears in our eyes from the happiness these people have brought us.”

Veterans were overwhelmed with emotion as they took part in a virtual honor flight video tour of national monuments in the nation's capital.

Veterans were overwhelmed with emotion as they took part in a virtual honor flight video tour of national monuments in the nation's capital.

The first Honor Flight Tour made its journey in 2005 out of Springfield, Ohio, transporting 12 World War II Veterans to our nation’s capital. Since that first flight, hubs began forming across the country to help support the mission of the newly formed Honor Flight Network: to transport America’s Veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit those memorials dedicated to honor the service and sacrifices of themselves and their friends.

Honor Flight South Florida made its inaugural flight in May 2013 and transported 16 South Florida Veterans and guardians from Fort Lauderdale to Washington D.C. The all-volunteer organization started hosting virtual honor flights in January 2016 to give the honor flight experience to our nation’s heroes, who for various reasons could not physically make the trip or flight.

“There are a lot of Veterans out there, especially the Korean and Vietnam Veterans, who sort of were forgotten,” said Jim Naskrent, co-founder and vice chairman of Honor Flight South Florida and event organizer. “We’re trying to make amends by holding events like today, inviting those Veterans who can’t fly and saying thank you. It was our pleasure to be here.”

“Thank you, Honor Flight South Florida, and all who helped bring the honor flight experience to our Veterans in our Miami VA Community Living Center,” said Paul Russo, director of the Miami VA Healthcare System. “It was an honor to share this moment with these men and women who we owe a debt of gratitude.”

A Korean War Veteran is brought to tears by a salute from a Young Marine during the homecoming parade.

A Korean War Veteran is brought to tears by a salute from a Young Marine during the homecoming parade.

The grand finale of the virtual event was the homecoming parade. With welcome and thank you signs hanging on every wall, Honor Flight South Florida volunteers, Miami VA employees, Young Marines, and the Veterans’ friends and families, lined the halls leading out of the auditorium and cheered, clapped and waved flags as the Veterans passed and made their way back to their rooms. It was hard to miss the big smiles on the Veterans’ faces and the tears some had in their eyes.

“Thank you, Honor Flight,” Kuschick said.

Honor Flight South Florida is always looking for volunteers to serve as Veteran guardians on upcoming flights. The next honor flights are scheduled for April 8 (Fort Lauderdale), May 20 (Miami), Sept. 19 (Fort Lauderdale) and Oct. 28 (Miami). For those interested in volunteering as a guardian on an honor flight visit www.honorflightsouthflorida.org.

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