Polk County

Lakeland teen surprises formerly homeless veteran with Honor Flight

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) - An Army Veteran who spent years living on the streets in Lakeland is getting the trip of a lifetime, all thanks to a teen who has made it her mission to help him.

Vietnam Veteran William Dread, also known as Willie, and 17-year-old Emily Cornelius will take off on Wednesday on the Honor Flight to Washington D.C. from the Lakeland Linder Airport.

Over the years, the pair has formed an unlikely bond.

"I decided I would go back on my military training and bought my tent and I just camped out," William Dread said.

He told WFLA that after serving as an officer in the Army, he fell on tough times. For years, the Vietnam Veteran lived on the streets of Lakeland.

But one moment changed his life forever.

"She just had a big smile on her face," Willie recalled about meeting Emily.

At the time she was 12, and she was working on a school project with the local homeless population.

"Mr. Willie stood out to me the most. I interviewed him and gave him a thank you care package at the end. And after I gave him that, he said, 'I feel like a true veteran,'" Emily told WFLA. 

Over the years, a genuine friendship bloomed.

Emily and her mother, with the help of local organizations, helped get Mr. Willie into an apartment, and even raised money to furnish it. 

Willie has also been seen in the stands of her softball games cheering on his favorite player.

"She's the best pitcher around," he said with pride.

Emily recently heard about an Honor Flight specifically for Vietnam Veterans, and of course she had a special passenger in mind. With the help of the community, she raised enough money to make Willie's trip happen and will ride on the plane as his guardian.

"It means so much you can hardly put it into words. I always wanted to go to Washington D.C. to see the monuments," Willie said.

He also plans to look for the names of two men who he said saved his life during the war.

"They jumped on top of me to shield me from a mortar," he said.

Willie was injured, but the two men lost their lives.

"It means a lot," he said smiling.

"They risked their lives so we could live here and they don't even get to live the way we get to live," Emily said. "I think they deserve the best. Especially Mr. Willie."

The flight left the Lakeland Linder Airport before sunrise Wednesday morning. News Channel 8 later received photos of the pair in DC, and a picture of Willie seeing the memorials.


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