Retired Navy Chief Robert Duarte ’57 shares the story of his involvement with The Honor Flight Network, an organization that honors America’s veterans by transporting them to Washington, DC to visit their memorials.

I had not been aware of Honor Flight until I made my first trip to Florida. It was the spring of 2011 and my flight was leaving from Reagan National airport. As I waited at the gate I heard a band playing and people cheering at the next gate. I saw older men and women receiving a rousing welcome from civilians and military members in uniform. I soon discovered that it was an Honor Flight arriving from Kansas City bringing World War ll vets to see their memorial in Washington, DC. I was handed a little American Flag to join in the welcoming celebration. Seeing the expressions on everyone’s faces, including some tears from the veterans, was a very special and emotional experience.

As often happens, I soon forgot about this experience until I moved to Florida the following year. The local newspaper listed all of the clubs and volunteer organizations in the area and I saw a listing for the Villages Honor Flight Club. Because I was so moved by the event at the airport the previous year, I was anxious to join the club.

My interest was especially heightened because I am a retired Navy Chief, and I also lost an uncle in World War II. When I was two years old, my family and I were visiting Honolulu the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing. I have some memory of that trip and my relatives have many stories of their experiences that day.

We all read about WWll in school and probably have seen movies about it. However, the opportunity to help pay back those brave men and women and to hear some of their stories is a priceless experience.

After attending a few Villages Honor Flight Club meetings, I knew I wanted to be involved in a more meaningful way. Each Honor Flight group works to raise the funds to purchase the tickets so the vets can fly free. The goal for my group was to be able to purchase 25 tickets. Those 25 veterans and their guardians (who pay their own way) were then assigned a flight day.

"Considering that more than 600 WWII veterans die each day, it is so important to be able to provide this service to acknowledge and honor them."

- Robert Duarte ’57

My original flight was scheduled for October 2012 with WWII vet, Loyd Kussman. Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy postponed our trip until the spring of 2013. Loyd and I developed a fast friendship as soon as we were paired. We connected before our flight and I was able to meet some of his family and had him over for good chats and good meals. Loyd’s best buddy, also a WWII vet was always with him. The two of them have shared so many interesting stories about their lives during and after the war.

Finally, our flight day arrived. It was a cool Florida morning in March and we were bused to the Orlando International Airport via police escort. People gathered at the local American Legion Hall to see us off, and at the airport we were welcomed by flag waving greeters and many active duty servicemen in uniform. The veterans were in awe of the whole event.

On board, other passengers on the flight greeted us with cheers and applause and the flight crew could not have been more diligent in caring for their precious cargo.

When we landed we were greeted with more cheers, flags, a band and young ladies with lots of lipstick planting big red kisses on all the vets. Medal of Honor recipient, Leroy Petri, who had lost his right arm in Afghanistan, greeted us and shook hands with every vet that disembarked.

We were taken to Arlington Cemetery for the Changing of the Guard, the Women’s WWII Memorial (we had 2 women vets among the group) and to the Iwo Jima Memorial. These experiences left many WWII Marines in tears. We visited the Korean Memorial, the Air Force Memorial and of course the WWII Memorial. An active duty National Guard Colonel was our local guide.

We walked around the reflecting pool to the Korean Memorial. When we arrived, Loyd’s was mobbed by high school girls who thanked him and planted a kisses on his cheek. I believe our group had the record for the most kisses; well over 300!

After a full day of visiting memorials, we prepared to return home.

While we waited to board we announced, “Mail Call!” Each veteran received envelopes with letters from school children thanking them for their service to the country.

Once our flight returned, we headed to the American Legion Hall to wrap up the experience. A crowd of more than 200 cheering men, women and children greeted us. You could feel the emotion of the vets who were finally being welcomed home! Bands played and another honor guard stood at attention as we passed by on to the American Legion Hall. The hall was decorated with flags and banners and everyone was snapping pictures as we were directed to the stage. By now it was after midnight, but everyone was still running on adrenaline. The trip was a great success and I will never forget my wonderful experience accompanying Loyd to his memorial.

To see photos of Robert and Loyd’s group and to learn more about the Honor Flight Network, click here.

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