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On flight after flight, Toledo-area veterans traveled to Washington for one-day visits to war memorials that provided memories to cherish the rest of their lives.
The trips, free of charge to veterans, were a way to remember, say thank you, and to give veterans — especially those who served in World War II — a chance to see the memorials built in their honor while they could still make the journey.
This year, after four more flights, the local sponsor, the nonprofit organization Honor Flight Northwest Ohio, will end its program.
The group has taken 1,666 veterans on 32 flights since the first in 2008. When the final plane departs, organizers expect nearly 2,000 veterans will have participated in the patriotic program.
World War II and Korean War veterans on the group’s waiting list will get seats on one of the remaining flights, said David Chilson, an Honor Flight board member and spokesman.
World War II veterans who haven’t made the trip can still apply, he added, while veterans of other wars may contact Mid-Michigan Honor Flight in Mecosta, Mich.
Group leaders believe nearly all of the Toledo area’s World War II veterans have been served, Mr. Chilson said.
“We feel that we have accomplished our mission,” he said. “We wanted to go out on a positive note instead of tapering off and kind of gradually doing fewer and fewer flights.”
The final flights are planned for April 30, May 21, June 18, and Sept. 24.
The idea for Honor Flight, created in Springfield, Ohio, in 2005, was simple: Take World War II veterans, whose numbers were quickly diminishing, to Washington to see their official memorial that had opened the year before.
In Toledo, Dee Pakulski read about the effort and wanted to get involved.
After working with a program in Michigan, she founded Honor Flight Northwest Ohio in 2007 as a local hub of a flight network that reaches around the nation.
Inspired in part by her father, a World War II veteran who died years before, she wanted veterans to know how grateful she and others were for their service in the decades-ago war.
“One of the gentlemen who was on my inaugural flight ... told me that when he came home on the train into New York, there was not one person there to greet him, and this was the very first thank you he had ever had,” Ms. Pakulski said.
For some ill veterans, the trip was considered “TLC” — “their last chance” — to see the memorial.
Ms. Pakulski stepped away from her position in 2010, but has remained in contact with many of the veterans.
Al Couturier of Toledo said his Honor Flight provided lasting memories, and the World War II veteran now encourages others to go.
“It is really worthwhile,” he said.
Care was taken to make sure veterans received help boarding the plane and throughout the trip, and wheelchairs were available.
In 2009, Bill McCormick of Toledo boarded an Honor Flight and marveled at the meticulous attention each veteran received. The World War II veteran enjoyed the many special moments, such as sharing a meal with a current soldier and visiting the memorials.
“I just couldn’t believe that they did all that for us,” he said.
Local organizers have enjoyed their efforts, Mr. Chilson said.
“It’s such a privilege to honor these men and women who have served our country, to give them the recognition that they are so deserving of,” he said.
Fund-raisers already scheduled will raise money for the final season, but the group won’t approve new events.
There are more than 130 regional hubs operating Honor Flights in 43 states, according to Diane Gresse, executive director of the Springfield-based Honor Flight Network.
Slightly more than 1 million World War II veterans survive today, she said. A few years ago, some hubs started to transition into serving veterans of other wars, a step the network encourages. Periodically, a hub may discontinue service.
“We’re respectful of that. We understand that everyone’s volunteered their time,” she said.
Ms. Pakulski said it’s “bittersweet” to see the end of local flights, but probably time to conclude the effort. Safety always has been a top program priority, she said.
“I think that the gentlemen are getting too frail, and I would be afraid that obviously every year it’s getting more and more risky,” she said.
The president of Honor Flight Northwest Ohio, Lee Armstrong, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Ernest Mease of Toledo recalled the patriotic display from well-wishers who cheered veterans on his Honor Flight and the ceremonial changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The World War II veteran said many make the trip not to receive glory, but to honor those who couldn’t go.
“So many of my generation and people that I was with and knew overseas, they never had a chance to come home for all the ceremony,” Mr. Mease said. “So people like me should feel that they are also doing it on their behalf.”