Saturday, September 24, 2011

Florida: Honor Flight trips in Brevard struggle to stay afloat

MELBOURNE — Leo Carter's determination to be on an Honor Flight paid off.

The waiting lists are long and with World War II veterans in their 80s and 90s, volunteers say it's a race against time to take as many of them as possible on a trip that means so much.

Honor Flight takes veterans from around the country to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at veterans' memorials there.

Carter's excitement and anticipation after being selected for the inaugural trip from Brevard County last October were deflated when he had to cancel just a few days before takeoff. He had to undergo
surgery for a broken neck and compressed disc that had left him temporarily paralyzed.

Well enough now to travel, he is eager to make the trip.

"I'm going to make it this flight if I have to hang onto the tail," said the 87-year-old Cocoa Beach resident.

The flight leaving Sunday is the third since the Oct. 30, 2010, inaugural trip for Honor Flight of East Central Florida, which serves veterans in Brevard, Seminole and Osceola counties. It will take 26 veterans, including Carter, and volunteer guardians.

The local organization is struggling to find additional sponsors and volunteers to take more veterans on future trips.

Carter, a Navy veteran who served on submarines, said he had been on waiting lists of Honor Flights hubs in other areas but never made it to the top because of the high number of veterans wanting to go.

"I missed the first one and had to cancel the second, all because of a broken neck," said Carter, who now uses a wheelchair and occasionally a walker to get around. "This looks like it's a go this time."

The highlight of the 20-hour trip is the World War II Memorial, which honors the 16 million who served and the 400,000 who died during the war, in which the United States fought from 1941 to 1945. Veterans also get to visit Arlington National Cemetery.

Since it started flights in May 2005, the Honor Flight Network has flown more than 73,300 veterans to Washington, D.C.

Despite there being a waiting list, the organization schedules trips and the number of veterans traveling on them based on funds it can raise and the number of people who come forward to volunteer as guardians.

"We'd like to find some corporate sponsors," said Pat Nelson, chairman of the local Honor Flight. "We have a lot of vets that want to go."

She said sponsors could help by providing goods, a meal or cash.

Karen Precord, of One Senior Place, a clearinghouse for information and services for Brevard seniors, said that even small organizations and companies could make a difference.

"If all businesses around would do a little, it would make a huge impact," she said.

The veterans do not pay for any part of the trip, which costs about $400 per person.

Volunteers, however, must pay their own way or get their employers or someone to sponsor them.

Dan Wolf, a chaplain for Vitas in Orlando, is going Sunday on his second trip as a guardian because he saw how important it was for the veterans. He will serve as a guardian for Carter.

"I went on the last flight in June," he said. "I enjoyed seeing the meaning of it for the vets that I wanted to go again. It was such a joy that they had in the recognition."

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