Photo by DAVID ALBERS, Daily News // Buy this photo
FORT MYERS — The sun had yet to rise as the main terminal at Southwest Florida International Airport filled with World War II veterans on Saturday.
Naples resident Jim Cusick looped in and out of the terminal.
“I’m 82-years-old and I’m like a kindergartner,” said Cusick, a veteran of the U.S. Army who participated in the Pacific Theater and occupation of Japan.
Cusick and more than 100 other members of Southwest Florida’s Greatest Generation traveled to Washington D.C., on Saturday with the Honor Flight Network. The nonprofit program gives World War II and terminally ill veterans a one-day trip to visit memorials dedicated in their honor.
The trip is free.
“We don’t pay anything for this. What they consider our payment is our service,” Cusick said.
As three school busloads arrived, Cusick, pictured above, was waiting at the door to the first bus where he helped his fellow veterans as they unloaded.
Most of the participants are in their 80s and the trip begins before sunrise and ends late the same night where it began. Guardians and three doctors accompanied them.
Frank Oden, 88, of Fort Myers, said he woke up at 1 a.m. in anticipation of the trip.
It is apparent that the veterans mentally had prepared themselves for the journey that day, as many of their fellow soldiers were not granted the same opportunity.
It is estimated that over 1,000 veterans of World War II die each day.
“There are a lot of guys dying everyday. There were 11 million servicemen in World War II and they throw around that only 2 million are left. That's like 20 percent,” said Cusick.
As light appears in the sky, the group gathered and headed to their concourse to board Air Tran flight 1945 to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
In the hall outside the security checkpoint, Patriot Guard and local motorcycle club members lined the path, standing at attention with American flags.
The soldiers salute back and forth.
At the security checkpoint, an honor guard comprised of TSA employees saluted and chatted with the soldiers as they passed through. On the tarmac, two airport fire engines sprayed a water arch for the plane to pass under as teary-eyed relatives watched from the concourse.
“We go to the Iwo Jima statue every year and every year the crowd gets smaller and smaller,” said North Fort Myers resident Martha Hammond, the daughter of a veteran.
Misty weather greeted the group in Washington as they joined groups from seven other states to tour the memorials. Over 1,200 men and women visiting memorials dedicated to their service and the service of the men
“It’s magnificent,” said Cusick over his cell phone on a bench near the World War II memorial.
“A lot of people have come up to us and said thank you. Probably at least a dozen. One guy shook hands with me and told me how much the United States meant to him. He was from South Africa. It’s good to hear that over and over again.”
Connect with David Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/david-albers