TAMPA, Fla. - Seventy-four veterans from the Tampa Bay area recently took the trip of a lifetime to our nation's capital to visit war memorials in their honor. But, the trip's highlight may have happened when they returned.
It was the 47th flight by the all volunteer non-profit Honor Flight of West Central Florida, which has been honoring veterans since 2010. And FOX13 was invited along for the ride to share some of their stories.
"We make four flights each year and to see the appreciation in their faces makes it all worth it," says program director Tracy Luchtenberg, who hails from a military family herself.
Among those reporting, 97-year-old Fred Jenkins, who served in all three wars representing the monuments they visited; World War II, Korea and Vietnam. And Jenkins comes from a strong family of service.
His father served in World War I, as did his grandfather. And, he lost his brother in battle.
"We volunteered for every one of them," Jenkins says. "It's the motto of a real soldier. You run toward the danger."
But that service and sacrifice came without thanks.
"Coming back from Korea, I came straight to Grissom AFB, so I didn't get any hoopla out of that, you know," Jenkins tells FOX 13. "And the same thing happened when I returned from World War II. Nobody cared for what we did."
Many other veterans on Mission 47 tell a similar story not feeling appreciated. And that's why, they couldn't wait for this trip. After a two-hour flight courtesy of Allegiant Airlines into Baltimore, then a short bus ride into the District of Columbia, it started with a front row seat to witness the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
"Just amazing, really impressive," says 95-year-old Adam Gambardella, who served in World War II in Okinawa.
He made it a point on their next stop at the World War II Memorial and find the area representing Okinawa etched into the memorial's granite.
"I'd like to get back there some day, but I'm running out of time," he says with a chuckle.
There are several hundred veterans on a waiting list for this trip and these veterans have been on a list since 2016. But, there is no list for guardians and a dire need for them. Each veteran must be accompanied by a guardian or companion to escort them around the memorials.
Veterans fly free, but guardians make a $500 donation. Some businesses sponsor them, some make the donation themselves. Felicia Froelich made the trip as Jenkins' guardian. She met him when he came into her Town 'N Country restaurant Mission Barbeque.
It's her second trip as guardian, and she says it won't be her last.
"I have boys, and I've tried to teach them to give back to those who have sacrificed for us and this is a great way to do that," Froelich says. "It's more of a blessing to me than it is to Fred and I know he's loving it."
Vietnam veteran David Stove says his guardian helped him find and etch 18 names of the friends and comrades on the Vietnam War Memorial wall.
"I lost them all in one clip," he said. "I'm just filled with emotion, it means a lot to me. And the fact that everybody is so nice. You know, we didn't get that when we came home."
But this homecoming would be different as it was finally a chance to get it right. When they boarded their plane to return to St. Petersburg, each veteran was gifted an envelope full of letters much like when they had mail call in the service.
And, they were full of well-wishes and thanks form family members, from strangers and from the heart moving many of the veterans to tears.
"That was really special, all those letters, just incredible," said Vietnam veteran Ron Pulizotto.
And upon landing, their biggest surprise yet: A hero's welcome of close to 300 people – family members, strangers, law enforcement officers, firefighters, the U.S. Coast Guard, members from MacDill, the Rough Riders and others cheering for each, applauding the veterans and thanking every one of them for their service.
As for Jenkins, who was the last to get off the plane, he was moved to tears once he saw the crowd awaiting to thank them.
"It's a great day for America," he said with his biggest smile of the day.
For more information on the Honor Flight of West Central Florida, click here.