By JACK NEUBACHER
This was the second annual Flight to Honor that returned during SUN ’n FUN activities, but a total of four of these prestigious flights have departed and returned to the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport over previous years.
Each of the 72 vets that went on this year’s SUN ‘n FUN flight was assigned a “guardian” or personal assistant to help them with their travels and connections during the day.
A wheelchair is provided to each vet to make the trip easier. While many refuse the wheels, they are available if needed, since it is a long grueling day for the vets. The veterans arrive at the airport terminal at 4 a.m. for departure, with the flight returning at around 7 p.m.
The return is always an emotional event, not only for the veterans and guardians, but to the scores of family, friends and admirers who wait their triumphant return. As the American Airlines Airbus taxied up, they were honored with a traditional water cannon salute from the Lakeland Linder firetrucks.
Coming down the ramp, the vets have an honor guard escort from many military and local civic groups, then went on to be reunited with friends, families, and well wishers. Everyone got a little teary eyed at that point.
We met with Don Reiling after his greeting from the USO Girls. When asked what was most exciting about the trip, he could only say, “Everything, Everything, even the rain.
“But I’m especially stunned with all of this, really stunned,” he said as he motioned to the crowds. “I’ve tried to make this trip for years.”
According to officials with the Polk County Veterans Council, there are three benefits from these trips. First and foremost is to honor the veterans who served protecting our rights. Second it allows the community to show appreciation to the vets and third it provides an avenue for young people to recognize the sacrifices of those who served.
The veterans pay nothing for these trips, while the guardians pay $450. About 60% of the total cost is paid for with donations by the public.
Tax-exempt donations can be made to GiveWell Community Foundation, Flight to Honor, 1501 S. Florida Ave., Lakeland, Florida, 33803.