By DANA DITTMAR
CEO, SCC Chamber
Every once in a while, you have a day that you know you will never forget, no matter how long you live. June 6 was such a day for me. It began when the alarm went off at 3 a.m. and ended when I finally got to bed at 2 a.m. the next morning. What happened in between was nothing short of the most incredible day I have ever been blessed to be a part of.
I was a guardian for Jim, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran, on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. We left Clearwater in the pouring rain on a chartered Allegiant flight and landed at Baltimore– Washington International Airport at 8 a.m. With veterans in tan polo shirts and their guardians in green ones, we chatted and shared stories for the two-and-a-half-hour flight.
When we landed, the first of many emotional moments began. Jim’s best friend Del, also a Korean veteran on the flight, was elated and surprised to see his son greet him as he got off the plane. But the hugs, handshakes and tears did not end there.
Tears came to many of us as other passengers in the airport gave a standing ovation to our entourage of almost 200 as we passed by on the way to our busses. And it was that way all day long. Strangers saw the parade of World War II and Korean veterans — some walking, some in wheelchairs — visit the Air Force Memorial next to Arlington National Cemetery. They came out of nowhere to shake their hands as they moved past the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Wall, and finally, the World War II Memorial at the far end of the Reflecting Pool. It was D-Day, and the Mall was full of visitors.
They thanked them over and over for their service to our country. Small children came up to them and wanted to shake their hands, proving us wrong that they didn’t know their history. Jim asked me, “If we had another World War, would today’s young people step up like the others had done?” By the end of the day, he had his answer.
Severe storms in the St. Pete/Clearwater area delayed our flight home for more than three hours. As we sat in the airport, emotionally and physically exhausted, the Honor Flight folks gave us all another wonderful surprise. Just as was the case when they were in the military, there was a mail call.
Each veteran’s name was called, and they were given a manila envelope full of letters from home. Letters written by kids from local elementary schools, from government leaders and from friends and family.
These men had been to hell and back during their military careers, and here they were, tears streaking down their cheeks as they read the letters of appreciation from many people they had never met. Jim’s friend Del said this meant more to him than seeing all the monuments and memorials.
It was raining again when we got back to the airport at 11:30 p.m., but the foul weather did not deter the hundreds of folks who came out to cheer us all home. Veteran groups, active military, children, family, friends and so many others lined the corridors all the way to baggage claim cheering us all the way.
I have two new best friends in Jim and Del. And a memory I will never forget.
This column cannot do the experience justice. So, next time you see me, ask me how Santa got us back home to Sun City Center. Honest.