TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Tampa Bay Area veterans taking Honor Flight trips to our nation’s capitol will once again receive first-class treatment when they arrive.

It is, indeed, a victory for veterans.

Congressman Gus Bilirakis is thanking 8 On Your Side, in part, for reporting on this crucial matter, helping him make change for our nation’s heroes.

If you’ve ever seen an Honor Flight return home from Washington D.C., you’ve witnessed a magical moment of heart and soul.

“We do honor, duty and country,” said retired Master Sergeant Rachel Hughes, a Vietnam War, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. “Always. I would do it again. Any combat veteran would do it again because we love this great nation and what it stands for. God bless America.”

She describes Honor Flight as a “once in a lifetime experience” and can’t wait for her trip in June.

“I think there’s going to be goosebumps the entire trip,” she said. “It’s going to be proud, an awesome feeling, knowing you’re honored again, maybe the last time.”

Honor Flight is special for many reasons, including the careful planning, the in-depth organizing and the attention to detail so that everything runs smoothly when our heroes touch down in Washington D.C.

Congressman Bilirakis was shocked and saddened when 8 On Your Side told him that the National Parks Service would no longer escort veterans on tours.

“When News Channel 8 got involved, I think that helped tremendously,” Hughes said.

Congressman Bilirakis got to work to quickly fix it.

“Thank you so much, you are 8 on our side, on our veterans side, and I thank you so much. all of you,” Hughes said.

Congressman Bilirakis released the following statement:

On March 31, 2022 Congressman Gus Bilirakis was contacted by a local WFLA reporter alerting him of concerns that the National Parks Service (NPS) had discontinued escorts for the U.S. Honor Flight program in Washington, DC. The Honor Flight Program is a wonderful initiative to honor our nation’s heroes. Congressman Bilirakis has had the privilege of meeting many honor flight groups during their visit to the nation’s Capital and each time has found it to be a very moving and memorable experience. The planning, organization and careful attention to detail ensures that everything runs smoothly. A key component of achieving that goal is the vehicular escort provided by the United States Park Police (USPP) to ensure all Veterans, including those with disabilities, are able to see all of the memorials during their allotted time in DC. Veterans throughout the Tampa Bay area were upset by the news that escorts were being canceled, and Congressman Bilirakis vowed to take immediate action.

“This is a prime example of bureaucracy standing in the way of doing what is right- these Veterans deserve the highest respect from our nation. This is wrong and it needs to remedied immediately! It is the least we can do for these heroes,” said Bilirakis.

Upon learning of this new policy, Bilirakis set a meeting with NPS Director Chuck Sams and senior Department of Interior officials. Congressman Bilirakis made it clear that removing the escort for the Honor Flight is simply unacceptable and that he had secured bipartisan/bicameral support for a legislative fix if the issue wasn’t immediately addressed by the agency. Director Sams and his team assured the Congressman that they would actively work on the situation.

Earlier today, NPS and the Honor Flight Network announced today the resumption of NPS and USPP support of Honor Flight visits to begin again on June 1, 2022.

“For many of these Veterans, the Honor Flight is a once in a lifetime experience–their first and only opportunity to visit DC and to spend time at the beautiful memorials that have been built to recognize their service and sacrifice- and to remember those who served alongside them who did not make it home. I am grateful that the swift action taken by myself and my colleagues ensured that the escort service will be reinstated so our Veterans get the full experience they deserve,” Bilirakis added.