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More than 16 million men and women served in the military during WWII. There are now roughly one million remaining, and they're dying at a rate of 800 per day.

So time is running out to give one last “Thank You” to those who sacrificed so much to preserve our freedoms. That’s where Collier County Honor Flight (CCHF) comes in. It’s an all-volunteer, nonprofit mission to take local veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials dedicated to them.

Darryl Johnson, a key CCHF volunteer, was the featured speaker at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s March 15 meeting at Hideaway Beach Club.

Two local veterans, Navy veteran Dr. Debi Strand and Air Force veteran Sean Lux, arranged the first Collier flight on Nov. 9, 2013 for 45 WWII and five Korean War veterans.

Since then Collier County Honor Flight has organized 15 flights for 1,000 veterans.

Each flight costs $85,000, $70 for the plane charter alone. Johnson said that American Airlines as been their primary carrier.

Johnson is a “Guardian,” an escort assigned to a traveling veteran, so he was able to give a firsthand description of a typical Honor Flight.

“During the day-long journey, the veterans are provided with all transportation, buses, wheelchairs, three full meals and snacks," he said. "They also get an enthusiastic sendoff at local airports.”

Some of the DAR members are personally familiar with those airport celebrations, having participated in one involving women veterans at the Naples Airport.

Johnson said that law enforcement provides official escorts on the highways, “complete with flashing lights and sirens, no stopping at red lights, and there’s a water cannon salute at Reagan National Airport.”

Johnson said that even the ambulatory veterans welcome the donated wheelchairs because, “they get more hugs and kisses when they’re in the chairs”

“There’s a military style 'mail call' on the flights home,” he added, “when the veterans are given thank you letters, notes or cards sent in by school children, individuals, businesses and families.”

Johnson said many of the veterans are too emotional to read them right away.

"Many save them for later," he said.

Since the first ever Honor Flight in 2005 in Ohio, the national effort has grown to 137 chapters thanking 180,000 veterans with Honor Flights.

Flights are funded by donations from individuals, corporations, foundations, schools, military organizations and other fraternal organizations that want to honor these heroes. No funding is received from the government.

The next Collier County Honor Flights are Mission 16 on May 5, Mission 17 on Sept. 29 and Mission 18 and Oct. 20.

 Here is what you can do to help:

  • Volunteer to be a guardian. Guardians pay $450 for the privilege of being the personal escort to a veteran.  Guardians can be strangers, friends or a family member.
  • Volunteer your time and energy to help organize the flights.
  • Write a thank you letter to a veteran.
  • Be part of the sendoff or arrival greeting at the Naples Airport or the Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers when the veterans and their guardians return from their visit to Washington, D.C.
  • Donate money; it’s easy to do through the website and is tax deductible.

To learn more about Collier County Honor Flight, call 239-777-9295 or visit CollierHonorFlight.org.

About Marco Island's DAR

The Marco Island chapter of DAR was established in 1976. It has 59 members and 14 associates. Monthly luncheon meetings are at 10:30 a.m. on the third Thursday of each month. Potential members and visitors from other chapters are welcome. For more information, contact Karen Lombardi at 239-394-0028.

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