BUFFALO, NY (WKBW) – Mission 10 for the Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight was a milestone for the organization and a miracle for some 35 veterans.
“It takes my breath away,” said Shirley Chiodo, a US Air Force veteran from North Tonawanda.
Chiodo laughed, joked and smiled for most of the day as she lived a dream of visiting our country’s capital. Best of all, it was her 86th birthday.
She tried to get on the Honor Flight two years ago, but was unsuccessful. She spent the next 24 months wondering if she would ever get another chance. On October 9, she did.
Things started dark and early when Chiodo and 34 other local veterans and their guardians boarded a bus and drove to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, with their loved ones departing.
Mission 10 started at 3 a.m. with an escort from the local police.
From the minute they got to gate 15, the party started. The flags of each military branch lined the walls. Decorations of stars and stripes lined the ceilings.
What would normally be a quiet morning for airport staff was a morning full of cheers and chants as this group celebrated the day ahead.
“It’s been almost two years to the day since our last flight, so God bless you, God bless our country and let’s keep the patriotism,” said Tom Petrie, President of the Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight, to applause at the door.
Petrie led the group by saying the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a Happy Birthday wish for Chiodo.
“I feel honored and special,” said Chiodo.
Smiles were imprinted on the faces of these heroes, even before they got on the plane.
The Annapolis Town Crier greeted the veterans with a loud ringing, thank you and handshake at the door as they arrived at BWI Airport.
It’s a day planned for months, but for veterans it offered unexpected pleasures. The searchlights were on, passengers couldn’t help but show their appreciation with standing ovations, photoshoots, and more.
Mike Mineo of Williamsville was shocked to see a familiar face in Baltimore, his nephew who works for Southwest Airlines caught him at the door. Hugs and smiles from the airport to the bus that took the veterans on tour to Washington.
Mineo was very excited to see the statue of Iwo Jima.
“I’m happy to be home. A lot of the men never made it home, ”said Mineo, who served in the United States Marine Corps from 1952 to 1955.“ And I hope I did my part, you know?
Mineo and his military colleagues visited memorials of the Korean War, Vietnam War and WWII, where well-aged 90-year-old veterans were able to visit DC, some of them for the first time. .
A stop at the Women’s Memorial was what birthday girl Shirley Chiodo had been waiting for. Along with Edie Rebrovich, she was one of the two women on the trip, which reminded her of her days in the Air Force.
“We were about sixty [women] at the time. I was responsible for the morning reports. You sit at a desk and you write down who’s going, who’s coming, who’s going, that was my job to do, “Chiodo said.
She joined as soon as she turned 18 and she takes great pride in serving her country. Prior to this trip, Chiodo had never really been recognized as a hero for her service. At the Women’s Memorial, she had time to shine.
“This whole tour is amazing, the people have been so nice,” said Chiodo.
This day of honor was long. One with little sleep, few breaks and lots of commuting for 60, 70, 80 and 90 year old veterans. Not a single person complained.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing delays and raising questions since 2020, this trip has had a new feeling.
“It brought new things to the fore, new emotions, it re-energized us all. It’s such a great feeling to fly again,” said Petrie.
Another surprise this year was the wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where they honored three veterans of World War II, the Vietnam Wars, Korea and World War II. An honor that they don’t always have to do on honor flights.
All three stood with their hands over their hearts as the soldiers laid the wreath with the words “Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight” at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
One of those three veterans is Denny Wittmeyer of Boston.
“What more could you ask for. Just a great honor for me,” said Wittmeyer.
People young and old have shaken hands with him throughout the day, many calling him a hero, a term he doesn’t like.
” I am not a hero. I just did a job I had to do, that’s all. I went to Vietnam, did my job, and then I come home, ”Wittmeyer said.
Wittmeyer says being honored like this is different for a Vietnam War veteran.
“You didn’t tell anyone you were a Vietnam vet, I had to change my uniform and put on civilian clothes. You are lower than dirt when you come back from Vietnam,” Wittmeyer said.
Mission 10 also allowed him to continue his own mission: to visit two of his friends.
Wittmeyer slowly scoured the Name Wall at the Vietnam War Memorial, looking for Frank Ragusa and Andrew Shimp. It was hard to find anything other than tears once he found them.
“Two of your buddies were killed. It was tough,” Wittmeyer said.
Shimp had only 12 days to return home when he was killed, he recalls.
Although there were some difficult times, the feeling at the forefront for Wittmeyer was gratitude.
“Just amazing. To coordinate all of this and do what they’ve done for us veterans today is just amazing,” he said.
The trip home was very much like the outward journey, standing ovations and words of thanks from passers-by. The whole crowd joined in singing “God Bless America” as the Honor Flight prepared to board.
At around 10 p.m., the hoses and drums of the Greater Buffalo firefighters lead out of the airport and onto the shuttle back home.
Relatives met them with signs, hugs and kisses. At the end of Mission 10, they shared what they saw, with smiles warming our hearts and lighting up the faces of these humble heroes.