SAN DIEGO — Over the past week, News 8 has shared remarkable stories about our local World War II and Korean War veterans who participated in Honor Flight San Diego. The volunteers behind the nonprofit dedicate many hours to make the trip of a lifetime possible for our heroes.
As 83 war veterans loaded an Honor Flight charter plane on Friday one of the team leaders - a military daughter and wife - Mel Taitano reflected on the unforgettable experience.
"Every time I leave the flight my heart is always full,” she said.
Honor Flight flies World War II and Korean War veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit their memorials. Since the memorial for the Greatest Generation wasn't built until 2004 many WWII veterans weren't able to pay tribute. The Department of Veteran Affairs says of the 16 million who fought in the war, fewer than 400,000 are alive.
"We really need to get the word out. We really need to get our WWII veterans [on an Honor Flight], said Mel Taitano. “Time is of the essence.”
There are 141 Honor Flight hubs across the nation. Dave Smith started San Diego's in 2010 after taking his late World War II veteran father on a lone flight. They have flown 1,400 veterans since. The $250,000 trip is all paid through donations - veterans don't pay a dime - and the flights are run by a team of volunteers.
"The people, their service - it is one way we can give back to those who gave us so much to us,” said Smith.
The veterans are medically cleared for the packed three-day trip which includes “mail call” with letters from loved ones and local students; World War II, Korean War and many more memorials; and a flight home to an unforgettable homecoming. News 8’s Abbie Alford and Mike Edison were embedded in the latest Honor Flight San Diego and it appeared seamless.
Guardians for the Honor Flight participants can be family as young as 18 years old like Ryan Ruff who escorted his purple heart recipient grandfather.
“He has been the biggest inspiration in my life to do what he did,” said Ruff.
To encourage the veterans experience it with younger generations, veterans' spouses are deterred. Former San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman was a first-time guardian this year. Her late father fought in World War II and she used to line the airport for the Honor Flight homecoming in uniform.
"With the hugs and laughter and the tears and stories they are telling... quite frankly it's a wonderful opportunity to listen to them,” said Zimmerman.
Honor Flight offers the trip of a lifetime for America's heroes and everyone they meet along the way.
"If you never need to know what the face of courage looks like, just look around the room,” said Dr. Glenn Billman who was a guardian on the flight.
Honor Flight has another group to send to our nation’s capital in October, but the trip has not been fully funded and sadly, a flight has been grounded in the past.
If you would like to help and learn more about going or want to encourage a veteran to join, click here.