A handful of Hudson veterans had the trip of a lifetime when they were able to travel to Washington, D.C., and see the monuments that were created to honor their service.
The Honor Flight Cleveland allows veterans to travel to Washington, D.C., for the day free of charge to see a variety of different monuments. Veterans are never charged, and money comes from donations to the program.
Priority for the Honor Flight is given to World War II veterans, followed by Korean veterans and then Vietnam veterans. Participants on the flight are assigned to a specific guardian who helps them throughout the trip. There is also a nurse on each bus when they travel through D.C., and each veteran has an assigned wheelchair that they are welcome, but not required, to use throughout the trip.
This is the second year that veterans from Laurel Lake went on the trip. Last year, 15 veterans flew to D.C. This year, eight veterans from Laurel Lake traveled on the Honor Flight on June 5, alongside five guardians from Laurel Lake.
They were Bob Blair, Army; Bill Elms, Navy; Richard Haas, Army Air Corps; Jack Keefe, Navy; Kirk Reid, Navy; Del Knooihuizen, Navy; Jack Prentice, Army; and Joe Zapytowski, Army.
The veterans went through an application process to go on the Honor Flight, which does around 10 trips a year out of Cleveland. There are also several more Honor Flight hubs throughout the country that do flights to D.C. from different areas.
Each veteran was assigned a guardian on the trip, who stayed with them the entire time. Guardians must attend a class before the trip and are expected to devote their entire trip to their assigned veteran.
There were several guardians from Laurel Lake, including Betty Presti and Mary Cronin, who are staff members, David Oster, the executive director of Laurel Lake, and residents Millie Constable and Harrison Bubb. Zapytowski was also able to travel with his son Stephen as his guardian.
Travis Smith from Cuyahoga Falls traveled alongside his Laurel Lake friends on the trip.
The entire group had 50 veterans and 65 guardians on the trip, which is substantially larger than most of the groups that travel. The group flew out of Cleveland-Hopkins Airport on a commercial Southwest flight. They left Hudson at 5 a.m. and returned after 1:30 a.m.
They were greeted at the airport with a continental breakfast and entertainment while they waited for their flight. While on the tarmac in Cleveland, firetrucks surrounded the plane and made an archway over the plane before it took off. When they flew back to Cleveland, a bagpipe player greeted them and provided music as they walked to their bus.
The group was able to see a variety of different spots in D.C., including the WWII, Korea, Iwo Jima and Air Force memorials and Arlington National Cemetery.
Even with all the sights, for many on the group the biggest takeaway from the trip was the respect they received from everyone they encountered.
"All of the people waiting for the flights, they would all clap for us, and the ones close to us would stick out their hand and thank us for serving our country," said Reid.
The entire group agreed that they received an outstanding welcome at their airport, as well as everywhere else they went.
All those traveling with the group wore special Honor Flight shirts and hats that they received the morning of their trip along with a special tote bag packed with essentials for the trip, including a camera, snacks and a water bottle.
The respect received continued at the monuments.
"I shook hands with over 100 kids. We would stop and I would shake hand after hand," said Knooihuizen.
Each veteran received a letter in their bag from a school child thanking them for their service. When they got back to Hudson, they also received letters from a third-grade class at McDowell Elementary.
Presti, who coordinated that trip, hopes to be able to continue and take more of the residents to D.C. to see the monuments dedicated to them and their service.
All those on the trip agreed that it was a trip that they will remember forever.
"It was really quite emotional," said Joe Zapytowski.