‘Heroes welcome’ Tampa Bay veterans return home following first-ever visit to Washington D.C.

Polk County

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – A homecoming for heroes took place in Lakeland today, and it was a special moment to witness.

Just as the sun was setting, a plane filled with 86 veterans, primarily from the Vietnam and Korean wars, came home after visiting our nation’s capital. For many of them, this was their first time seeing Washington D.C. and the monuments dedicated to their service.

The “Flight to Honor” organization in Polk County facilitated the travel plans, including a day-long trip to Washington that began in the early morning hours at Lakeland Lindner airport.

This is the sixth trip for Flight to Honor and sadly, because of the pandemic, not everyone on the original manifest will be able to make it Tuesday.

“The unfortunate thing is nine of those that were scheduled to go last year have passed away, and another is terminally ill. It’s important that we are able to do this and give these people, many of whom have never been to Washington or have never had the opportunity to visit the memorials, the opportunity to do that,” said Gary Clark with Flight to Honor.

But, this trip was, ultimately, a journey many years in the making since some of the service members on board had never seen the capital or the monuments.

After a busy day with a full itinerary, the flight filled with heroes flew back to Florida. As they landed, the tarmac was packed, greeted with the greatest gift, the smiling faces of those they love most, waving flags, anxious for their embrace, welcoming them home.

For one dad, the tears came quickly after he spotted his four daughters in the crowd, calling his name, been rushing into his arms.

“We’re so proud of you so proud of you,” said his youngest daughter, Cheryl Winchester from Winter Haven. “He is our idol, and we adore him you can see that.”

Her father, Donald Haley, served in the Air Force during the Korean War. He had never visited Washington D.C. before and his girl’s convinced him to go on the trip. Haley admits he was speechless when he saw the memorials.

“It’s just something that you don’t think you’re ever going to do. My daughters talked me into doing this, it’s great it’s very great,” said Haley.

Then, there were the newlyweds, a Polk County couple married just three years who said they missed each other as the groom flew to Washington D.C. for the day.

“It was so quiet,” said Ruth Warnick. “He had never been to Washington D.C. before, so excited about going.”

“It was great. This was my very first time visiting. It was fabulous, said Forrest Miles who served in the Korean War.

He, too, described seeing this memorial for the first time. His eyes welled, as he paused with a heavy sigh. “Remembrance,” he said.

Those who organized the trip took all the necessary safety precautions, including vaccinations and masks.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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