When Peter Frey returned home after serving in Vietnam, he did not receive a warm welcome.
“I was discharged in ’65 and landed in the San Francisco airport. People were spitting on me and calling me, ‘baby killer.’ When I got to Chicago, I hid in the bathroom until it was time for my flight,” he said.
While the West Park Village resident cannot change the reception veterans received many years ago, he has, for the past 10 years, been working with Honor Flight of West Central Florida (HFWCF) to make sure that veterans get the chance to visit Washington, D.C., and that when they return home from that trip, they receive a hero’s welcome.
There are 130 Honor Flight hubs nationwide, covering 45 states. The organization’s mission is to recognize American veterans for their service and sacrifice by flying them free of charge to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at the memorials dedicated in their honor.
HFWCF makes the trip with 75 veterans and their guardians (who pay $400) four times a year. “We leave at 4 a.m. and fly to Baltimore, where we have three buses with police escorts waiting for us. We visit the Air Force Memorial first, have lunch, and then go to the Korea, Lincoln and Vietnam memorials. Then it’s back on the bus to go to the World War II memorial.”
The whole group heads back to the airport to make a 6 p.m. flight back to the St. Pete/Clearwater airport. Frey says that Allegiant Airlines donates the plane to transport the group and that the pilot and crew volunteer to work for free that day.
When the group gets off the plane and begins to exit the airport, the veterans finally receive the welcome home they deserve. The halls of the airport are lined with family members, Scout troops, school groups and others who are clapping, cheering and waving American flags. There is a band playing and ladies dressed up in USO uniforms who take time to have their picture made with every veteran. “Many have never had a thank you before,” said Frey.
He added that despite the long day of travel “their eyes light up when they see everyone there cheering for them.”
Frey has heard some truly amazing stories from veterans during the 37 honor flight missions he’s been on. “One guy from World War II could remember spending his 16th birthday in a foxhole in Europe,” he recalled. Others have told him harrowing tales of narrowly avoiding death. “We had one World War II veteran who showed up to a fundraising event in his full uniform. He had a Bible with him that his congregation had originally given him. He showed it to us and it had a bullet hole in it. He’d been shot at Iwo Jima and had the Bible in his pocket, which saved his life.”
Everyone involved with HFWCF volunteers their time to make the trips special. Frey has recruited many of his neighbors to be guardians and says that while the organization does receive a lot of community support, it could always use donations, more guardians and people to come welcome the veterans home.
The impact that the trip has on the veterans and all those involved is enormous. Frey has a huge binder filled with thank you notes and photos. One veteran wrote, “How do I begin to thank you? You made me famous to my family. I was always hoping I could leave them something to remember me by. My heart and soul will never be the same.”
For more information on Honor Flight West Central Florida and what you can do to help, visit www.HonorFlightWCF.org.
By Marcy Sanford