Honor Flight Northeast Indiana provided 84 local veterans the trip of a lifetime during its last trip of the year Oct. 17.

The nonprofit, which provides free flights to Washington D.C. for veterans to see the memorials built in their honor, celebrated its 30th Honor Flight and fourth trip this year. To date, it has brought more than 2,000 veterans to the nation’s capital.

The most recent Honor Flight veterans included two World War II era veterans, 75 Korean War era veterans and seven Vietnam veterans. Honor Flight president Dennis Covert said veterans submit applications for the program and priority is given first to WWII veterans and veterans of any era who are terminally ill, followed by veterans of following eras.

The veterans got an early start to the day. They met at the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard at 5:30 a.m. where they enjoyed breakfast served by the American Legion Post 241 in Waynedale and members of the USO. The veterans also enjoyed a program in their honor. U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, attended the send off and addressed the veterans.

“We live in the greatest country in the world and it would not be so without the service of each and every one of you,” he said.

Family members watch veterans board their flight to Washington D.C.

After the program, the veterans boarded an American Airlines chartered jet for the one-hour flight to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Honor Flight veterans travel with guardians, travel companions who are there to assist them during the day’s activities. In most cases, guardians are children, grandchildren or other family members, Covert said. However, if a veteran doesn’t have a guardian, Honor Flight will assign them a qualified, screened and trained guardian.

In Washington D.C., they boarded buses and traveled with a police escort during the trip.

“When we leave the airport, they turn on the lights and the sirens and we don’t stop for red lights or anything else,” Covert said.

The veterans toured the National World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

The Honor Flight participants also visited Arlington National Cemetery where they observed the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown.

Their last stop was the Air Force Memorial where they had dinner before heading back to the airport. There, they were greeted by a group of young men and women dressed in 1940s and 1950s era clothing, who danced and entertained the veterans before they departed.

“We usually have some kissing ladies there who will put on extra lipstick and kiss the veterans on the cheek as they get back on the plane,” Covert said.

When the plane landed in Fort Wayne, the veterans thought the Honor Flight was over, but it wasn’t, he said.

More than 3,000 people came to the Fort Wayne International Airport to welcome the veterans home. As the veterans walked through a reception line that was more than 100 yards long, people clapped and shook their hands, thanking them for their service. Members of the crowd held handmade signs and waved flags as a band played patriotic music.

Families eagerly await the arrival of loved ones at the Honor Flight homecoming celebration Oct. 17.

“By the time a lot of those veterans and their guardians get through the reception line, there’s wet eyes out there. It’s a long day, but it’s a good day,” Covert said.

Veterans and their families were visibly moved by the show of support. Outside the airport, the Knuth family posed for photos with Ralph Knuth, an Army veteran who served during the Korean War era. He said he enjoyed a wonderful day of sightseeing and beautiful weather. Coming home to such fanfare was an experience he won’t soon forget.

“I was surprised by how many people were inside and outside the terminal,” he said.

The Knuth family poses for a picture at the Honor Flight homecoming celebration at Fort Wayne International Airport Oct. 17. PHOTO BY BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

His son, Dave Knuth, accompanied his father on the Honor Flight as a guardian. He teared up as he talked about how special it was to spend that precious time together.

“Spending time with my dad and being able to visit the memorials with him was great,” he said.

One of the highlights of the trip was on the flight home when volunteers reenacted mail call, he said. His father received letters from family members thanking him for his service as well as mail from school children and church members.

Covert said a compliment that Honor Flight routinely gets from veterans is that the trip was one of the best days of their lives.

Each Honor Flight costs about $85,000, he said. The October trip was made possible with the support of CWC Logistics, Green Pro Lawn & Landscape and CWC Transportation services.

Honor Flight Northeast Indiana is ran entirely by unpaid volunteers. The nonprofit always welcomes donations, which are tax deductible. Covert said the cost of chartered flights is expected to increase next year.

For more information about Honor Flight Northeast Indiana, visit hfnei.org.

Click here to see pictures of all the veterans who participated in the Oct. 17 Honor Flight.