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It was the beginning of the end, and what a celebration — joyful and tearful — it was.
As Honor Flight Northwest Ohio taxis toward its final trip, the excitement of veterans awaiting the boarding call still gives goosebumps.
Anticipation throttled the conversation level of the crowd — friends, relatives, volunteers, veterans, and a celebrity groundhog — at the Grand Aire Hangar near Toledo Express Airport early Wednesday morning.
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Guests were welcomed with breakfast, clusters of red-white-and-blue balloons, and American flags. Lots of flags. On lapel pins. On ballcaps. On handmade placemats.
Only three trips remain as Honor Flight concludes its mission to take veterans, free of charge, to D.C. to view memorials constructed in their honor.
Some World War II veterans, those frail and fragile, no longer travel. Death declines the number of WW II veterans daily.
Veterans of other wars now take Honor Flight trips.
As they waited Wednesday, veterans swapped war stories. Served in the Pacific. Ended up in Cuba. Got as far as Washington and fought in the Battle of the Potomac, quipped Tom Smith, 81, of Oregon, who served in the Army during the Korean War.
Veterans wore Honor Flight shirts, printed with a message: The American Military. Preserving your rights and freedoms since 1776.
On photo display boards, other patriotic phrases. Bound by Honor. Hometown Hero. Always Remember, Never Forget.
Several Fremont Ross High School students volunteered to assist with set up and tear down.
“We’re here to help them because they did everything for us to get here,” said Maurene Fox, 17.
Spending time with veterans was a great opportunity, some students said.
“We want to thank them for their service to our country,” said Kortni Lagrou, 16.
From table to table, Charlie Hoag introduced his pet groundhog, HuckyToo, the Springfield Township seasonal seer (for the record, the 3-year-old groundhog is 3 for 3, but Mr. Hoag said his furry buddy this year should have predicted 10, not 6, more weeks of winter).
HuckyToo and the original Holland Huckleberry likely are the only groundhogs who raise funds to benefit veterans. Upward of $7,000 has been donated to Honor Flight by the two Hoag pets. It’s easy to open your wallet when an adorable varmint with sharp teeth is asking. And it’s a good cause.
As he introduced his pet to veterans, Mr. Hoag was surprised to see his relative, Harold Mucci, a Navy veteran who has been counting down the days until the trip.
A resident of Toledo’s South End, Mr. Mucci, 85, was a fireman in the Navy during the Korean War. Later, he served 26½ years with the Toledo Fire Department.
At a nearby table Todd Jacquot of Fostoria said he’s shot plenty of pesky woodchucks, but welcomed the chance to visit with HuckyToo. “I thought that was great, getting to meet him,” said Mr. Jacquot who had asked if it was OK to pet Hucky.
The response: “Just keep your hands away from his mouth.” The rodent was being a rascal. “It’s groundhog breeding season. He wants a nice, cute little female.” That won’t happen. “One pet groundhog is plenty,” said Mr. Hoag.
Booked on the trip was Mr. Jacquot’s father Franklin, 86, of Wood County’s Risingsun, who served during the Korean War. Years earlier, three of Franklin’s seven siblings were in the military. Young Franklin missed school to keep up with farm chores. A truant officer hunted him down. “I get up at 5 a.m. to grind grain,” Franklin said then. “I would love to go to school instead.” The truant officer stayed away after that.
It would be Franklin’s first trek to Washington. “I want to go to see what it’s like,” he said.
Soon came the announcement. Use the bathroom. Clear pockets of pocketknives. Get good-bye hugs.
A large door opened. On the horizon, a bank of battleship gray clouds.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Jim Tichy about Honor Flight’s final local trips. An Honor Flight team member, he predicted: “It’s going to be a great day.”
Volunteers, flags in hand, stood near the plane during boarding.
Bill King of Bowling Green, a World War II Navy veteran, went to Washington in 2008 as a guest of Honor Flight.
Since then, “he comes for each flight. It’s that important to him,” said his daughter Beverly Gonzales of McClure, Ohio.
As teens huddled to keep warm, Ms. Gonzales worried not about her 90-year-old father. “He’s not cold. For him, it’s an adrenalin rush.”
Several Honor Flight send-off “regulars” lingered, awaiting the water cannon salute.
“It is one way we render honor for veterans,” David Chilson, an Honor Flight board member, said about the arch of water.
“Here we are today. Our first flight was on April 30, 2008. We never thought we would go into the seventh year. This is our 33rd flight. We’ve taken 1,666 vets and 60 some more today,” he said.
As onlookers cheered and waved, the plane lifted skyward.
For the veterans, it was the long-awaited moment. Washington, here we come.
Contact Janet Romaker at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6006.