TAMPA, Fla. – As President Obama appears in Tampa to coordinate the latest U.S. military operations, a group of Florida veterans from previous conflicts are back home again, fresh off a very special and emotional journey to the nation's capital.
Early in the morning this past weekend, 24 southwest Florida veterans boarded a plane to Washington D.C. Their mission is to visit the memorials built in their honor: World War 2, Korean War, the Vietnam War, among others.
This is a special pilgrimage for the veterans. They are traveling with a group called the Southwest Florida Honor Flight, which takes veterans of all wars on a one day trip from their homes to Washington, D.C.
"This whole city is a monument," said veteran Howard Linz.
Upon arrival at Reagan National Airport, they’re met with a greeting ceremony fit for these heroes. Representatives from the Pentagon and the Department of Defense shake every hand, thanking them for their service and sacrifice.
First stop, the World War II Memorial. Shortly after our arrival, the skies unleashed, but rain fall could not stop these veterans. 56 pillar,s one from each state and territory, honors the sixteen million who served in the armed forces during World War II and the more than 400,000 who died and the millions who supported the war effort at home.
As it’s inscribed, "here we mark the price of freedom." And had it not been for these brave men and woman, our freedoms might have been quite different.
Suncoast veterans like Linz who served from 1943-1945 as an aviation cadet, describes what it was like, and how confused he was at the time. "With no television, or any significant radio, we had no idea what was going on over there."
The veterans arrived back at the bus, excited, albeit a bit damp, and made their way to the Korean War Memorial. A somber memorial, the nineteen stainless steel statues depict the rainy rice paddies of Korea. One veteran told us that despite the passage of decades, the memories are still too difficult to talk about.
Just a short walk away is the Lincoln Memorial which is where we found Dean Lange, a former Los Angeles firefighter, admiring the sculpture of our sixteenth president, who led a divided nation through the Civil War.
Next up, Arlington National Cemetery; 624 acres of hallowed ground and the resting place of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The veterans watched the changing of the guard, a ceremonial transfer as one soldier hands over the guard to another to continue the watch. It's an exercise of military precision and commitment.
Then to the Woman in the Military Memorial, where we followed Phyllis Hastings, an air woman in the Royal Canadian Air Force. "It just makes me feel good to see how we all worked together to win the wars."
As the sun finally broke through the clouds, the moment our Marine Corps veterans had been waiting for arrived, as the Iwo Jima Memorial came into view.
"When I think about what my buddies went through and the sacrifices that they made, that touches my heart."
It was a trip of a lifetime for so many of these veterans that have never been to their memorials; a touching tribute to those who deserve it most.