It is 2 a.m. at the Wickham Park Senior Center in Melbourne, Florida, and retired Rear Adm. James Hart, president of Space Coast Honor Flight, is doing roll call. “Sound off,” he calls out cheerfully to 25 U.S. military veterans, ranging in age from 73 to 96, who have been selected for a “final mission on behalf of their country.”
Men and women who, decades earlier, served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, raise their hands and respond with an enthusiastic “One,” “Two,” “Three,” etc. During the next 24 hours, they will be given a hero’s send-off and welcome as they travel to and from Washington, D.C. – free of charge – to tour the nation’s war memorials built in their honor.
“This flight is going to be an emotional and joyful day for all of you,” remarks Hart. “Some of you may have tears – and that’s OK – because you are going to see things and remember things that perhaps you haven’t thought about for a while.”
Since its inception in 2005, the national nonprofit Honor Flight program has flown more than 245,000 U.S. veterans to the nation’s capital, where they visit the United States Air Force, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Iwo Jima, and Women in Military Service for America memorials, as well as the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon. They also attend the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.