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I have learned a lot from the men and women veterans during April’s sixth Central Valley Honor Flight. While most verbalize they do not deserve recognition, their duty to their country is most appreciated.

Veteran Victor Clemo (90) joined the army at 18 years. He served as an anti air gunner for the 120th Airborne division.

“Give credit to the true heroes of World War II,” Clemo said. “The men and women who gave their lives are the real heroes.”

Clemo landed eight days after D-Day and was in Europe through V-E Day and beyond.  Each and every veteran has a different story to tell and my only regret is that I wasn’t able to listen to all of them in the short time we were together. 

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The veterans were in awe of the Air Force Memorial and its 270 ft. tall spires, April 28, 2015.

The CV Honor Flight attendees visited all major war memorials in the DC and surrounding area, April 26-29, visiting WWII, Iwo Jima, Vietnam, Korea, Navy, Air Force, tomb of the Unknown and the Arlington National Cemetery memorials.

The group visited the WWII Memorial was the first stop. The World War II Memorial honors the 16 million men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces during the Second World War. The memorial was dedicated May 29, 2004.

“It was a huge blessing for me to see how our nation honored the fallen WWII soldiers,” Mario Isnardi, army said while tearing up. Isnardi and most all veterans, most in wheelchairs, moved about the memorial in silence.

I observed people all over Washington, D.C., America and the world, stop and thank the veterans for their service. Others cheered and clapped as they rolled by.

When we passed by the Vietnam Memorial Wall, a group of about 150 high school students from Ohio, who where there on school trip, stopped and stood quietly clapping. Others shook the veterans’ hands as they walked past the Wall of Names. The clapping intensified as onlookers grew.

At first the veterans seemed confused because most had never had someone,whether young or old, want to talk to them and shake their hands just because of their service. This was definitely the most moving experience of the trip. I also teared up watching the veterans in tears as teachers and students gave thanks to men and women they never met. 

The volunteer staff of Honor Flight was top notch. They were organized and ready to go at any stop. Safety was their number one concern while in D.C. They have a perfect record of no accidents and proved that on this flight.

Al Perry, former VA director, stayed level-headed and positive and his warm, comforting smile and greeting to each veteran was infectious. Even when our bus driver missed a turn or people wouldn’t move their cars for the bus, Perry always kept a smile on his face and a cool attitude. He shared past Honor Flight experiences and provided an answer to all questions. 

I was chosen to go on the Honor Flight as the first ever high school reporter. The organization wanted a young person’s perspective on the trip. They now choose one student for every flight and provide an alternate view of the events. I experienced first-hand, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of WWII veterans. 

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Evalyn Rockwell receiving mail on the plane ride home, April 29.

The veterans treated me like their grandson and all wanted to take turns talking to me, many during breakfast each day. I felt honored they sought me out when I was looking to hear their stories.

At the Air Force Memorial for instance, I heard personal stories of horror and bravery as these men and women landed on the beaches across the world. On many occasions these were the first time they felt comfortable sharing openly. No book or movie could replicate this experience.

Talking to all veterans was definitely a highlight of the trip. Every one of them had a different job in the military during the time of WWII.

I am most moved by Evalyn Rockwell’s (88) Honor Flight experience. She was a Navy corpsman and worked in a pediatrics wing with refugee children from the Philippines.

On the plane ride home, I was flipping through pictures on my phone and I came across one of Rockwell, who was sitting behind me. As I turned around and showed her a photo I had taken of her at the Air Force Memorial, she almost instantly broke out in tears. She told me how much she loved the picture; it brought back emotions of her war experience. Her raw emotions lay just below the surface and she expressed her gratitude towards Honor Flight staff who gave her the opportunity to visit the memorials.

We had lunch at the Air Force Memorial on the last day and after lunch all the veterans started to tell story’s to each other. The stories that were flying around were all so interesting, I wish I could have been sitting next to every veteran.

The special thing about those stories is some of them had never been told before. I got to hear stories that maybe their family had never heard. From landing on beaches of Pacific to being a radioman in Europe, every veteran had a unique story.

I got to sit next to Rene Lastreto (91) one morning at breakfast and all he could talk about was the adrenaline rush he got as the Radiomen on a Navy Dive Bomber. The almost vertical decent that they would make before dropping their payload on a unexpected Japanese vessel, gave me goosebumps. Lastreto also shared living on the huge Aircraft carriers for months at a time. Some times he would forget that he was on a boat because he would get lost in the vastness of the ship. 

This trip will be something I will remember for the rest of life. The people I met, the things I saw, the stories I heard. The next Central Valley Honor Flight is Oct. 19-21 and will leave from Castle Airport in Atwater. There are three flights per year and hundreds of people gather at the Fresno Yosemite International airport for both the send off and return of Honor Flights.

Be sure to go and check the Central Valley Honor Flight website for information on how you can become involved. One immediate need is funding for the next flight. Veterans are not charged for the trip and the organization needs funds to fill the spots.

Please take the time to talk to a World War II veteran. Their stories and character are moving. My eyes were opened to living history.

For more information, visit Central Valley Honor Flight from jarrod markarian on Vimeo.

This author can be reached via Twitter @10_jarrod and Instagram @10_jarrod or at Jarrod Markarian

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