Honor Flight takes off again Tuesday

CONYERS -- Tuesday will be a day to remember for area veterans who fought in a war they pledged they would never forget.

For the third time in just over a year, 25 area U.S. military veterans will head to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials to the wars they fought in.

"The mission is to take veterans to Washington to visit their respective memorials, free of cost to the veterans," said Dave Smith, president of the Conyers Honor Flight Hub.

The group will gather at the American Legion Post 77 parking lot about 5 a.m. where the 25 veterans, their 25 guardians and support staff, including a paramedic, an EMT and a photographer, will board two buses supplied by First Baptist Church of Conyers. The caravan will travel to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport escorted by law enforcement and Patriot Guard Riders of Georgia.

"When we arrive in Washington, we will have a reserve travel bus and we will start out visiting the World War II Memorial, and after we spend time there, we will move on to Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War wall, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the new Air Force Memorial and then on to Arlington (National Cemetery) where we will see the changing of the guard at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," Smith said.

The group will then head back to the airport, where they will eat dinner, fly back to Atlanta, and return to Conyers sometime about 10 p.m.

Each veteran is accompanied by a guardian, who assists the veterans for the day, aiding with wheelchairs, if necessary, and generally seeing to the well-being of the veterans.

The costs for the veterans are raised through donations, but the guardians pay for their own expenses. This year, Smith said, Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington and Lt. Mike Sellers will be traveling as guardians.

Honor Flight is a national nonprofit that offers free flights to Washington for U.S. veterans. Smith and his wife, Anita, started the local chapter in January 2011 after learning about the program in Fayette County. He participated as a guardian on one of the last flights from that chapter that provided seven trips to about 500 veterans.

"I went along with the idea that we might possibly start something up here in Conyers, and after I did that and saw what was going on, my wife and I got with some people here and said this is something we have got to do. We have to keep this going," Smith said.

He said the Honor Flights are open to any veteran, but the focus at this point is on World War II veterans since they are the oldest and many have passed away. However, Smith said the History Channel sponsored a trip for Vietnam War veterans from Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia and Phoenix in November in honor of Veterans Day.

The trip on Tuesday will be the third trip organized by the local chapter.

Smith said the Honor Flights are very special for the veterans, many of whom have never seen the war memorials in Washington. He said they are treated with great respect and honor throughout their visits.

"All along the way, people walk up and shake their hands, congratulating them and honoring them all the way through," Smith said.

A "Welcome Home" party is being organized for those who would like to line up along Ga. Highway 138 near the American Legion to welcome the veterans home.

Smith described a scene during a trip last year when several groups of high school students were at the World War II Memorial at the same time as members of the Honor Flight.

"There were a lot of high school kids and young people who came up to us and wanted to know if they could talk with the veterans, and pretty soon there was a line of well over 100 kids who were shaking their hands and talking to them about their sacrifice," he said. "It would blow you away if you could've seen that."