CONYERS -- After a year that started with just an idea and desire to help, Honor Flight Conyers took off this morning on its maiden flight taking World War II veterans to Washington, D.C.
Twenty-five veterans, their guardians and support staff left the American Legion Post 77 parking lot at 5 a.m. and are scheduled to return late tonight following a day-long visit to Washington, war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery.
Anita Smith, who co-founded the local Honor Flight affiliate with her husband, David, said Wednesday she still cannot believe the flight is happening.
"A lot of people have done a lot of work between where we were and where we are now," she said. "We simply could not have done this without the support of the community."
Smith said veterans from Rockdale, Newton, DeKalb and Morgan counties and other parts of north Georgia are flying to Washington today.
Each veteran takes along a guardian, which can be a friend or child. Veterans cannot take spouses as guardians because the spouses may require as much care as the veterans, and also because the veterans tend to bond better without their spouses, said Smith.
The Conyers Honor Flight program is accepting names for a waiting list for the next flight. So far, there are 125 applications, said Smith.
Guardians assist the veterans for the day, aiding with wheelchairs, if necessary, and generally seeing to the wellbeing of the veterans. They each pay $400 for the trip, which includes the air travel, bus service around D.C. and meals for the day. The travel crew includes two medics, a photographer and two members of the Honor Flight board.
The group is seeking donations. The cost of sponsoring a veteran for the trip is $400, but donations of any amount will be accepted.
Assisting with the effort on Sept. 22 is First Baptist Church of Conyers, which is donating the use of a bus for travel to and from the airport. In addition, AirTran offers discounted flights for the program.
Police escorts to and from the airport are provided, as are military greetings upon the veterans' arrival and departure. They fly out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and into Reagan National Airport, and are allowed to go through a special expedited security procedure.
Honor Flight is a national nonprofit offering free flights to Washington for U.S. veterans. The veterans are flown to the nation's capital for the day where they visit locations including the National World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
The Smiths decided to start an Honor Flight in Conyers after hearing a presentation of the Fayette County program at the Rotary Club of Rockdale County.
After providing seven flights, with passage to about 500 veterans, the Fayette County program has ceased. David Smith went as a guardian on one of the last flights last September. Anita Smith said that trip was the deal maker for him.
"It was his birthday present last year," she said. "So I spent $400 for him to go. He came back and said, 'You've got to do it. It's an incredible experience.'"
Honor Flight Conyers accepts applications from across Georgia. For more information, go to www.honorflightconyers.com.