In the words of the late, great Will Rogers, “We can’t all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud as they go by.”
This is the sentiment that motivates people like Islip Town supervisor Angie Carpenter to fight for veterans and ensure they have opportunities like the ones provided by Honor Flight Long Island. After a hiatus that lasted nearly two years, the organization is back to flying World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans to their memorials in Washington, D.C.
“I never had the opportunity to serve my country in the armed services, but like the T-shirt says, ‘We can’t all be heroes,’” said Carpenter at an Oct. 3 press conference marking the first Honor Flight to take off from Long Island MacArthur Airport (LIMA) post-COVID-19.
In a pre-COVID-19 world, the flights left LIMA twice per year, flying an average of 50 veterans per trip, according to Steve Russell, a LIMA employee and liaison to Honor Flight. Now, in an effort to provide a safe trip for everyone, fewer veterans travel at once. Only nine veterans, plus their chaperones, took off with the Oct. 3 flight.
“They fly into Baltimore Airport and take a motor coach to their monuments in downtown D.C.,” said Russell.
WWII veterans get to see the WWII Memorial; Vietnam veterans get to see theirs. For many veterans, this trip might not otherwise happen because of the cost or logistics. For example, many WWII veterans were born between 1916 and 1926, and are not as agile as they once were or are wheelchair-bound.
“This is our last trip with a group of World War II veterans, so this is a very special trip,” said Bill Jones, director of the Long Island chapter of Honor Flight.
Jones explained that the trip was delayed a few times, and that the veterans on the flight were very much looking forward to the experience.
“Most of them were supposed to fly out two years ago,” he said.
The veterans were handed a booklet with stories they each submitted. The booklet reads like a page from history. In one entry, Constantine “Gus” Efthimiades, an Army corporal from Whitestone, Queens, tells the story of joining with Russian forces to look for Nazis in Germany.
“We marched past farmhouses and small villages, inspecting them for any Nazis along the way. One day we stopped marching and my sergeant gave me a bazooka and told me and my friend to go down a trail and wait for further instructions,” it reads.
Efthimiades shared two sepia-colored photos and concluded the story with the end of the war and the medals he earned for his service and bravery.
“After a long time, we met the Russians at the Ebbe River and my last order was to stand guard with a Russian soldier for four hours. After that, the war ended. I got my Combat Infantry Badge in April 1945. I also received the WWII Victory Medal, the EAME Campaign Medal, The Good Conduct Medal and Bronze Star for distinguished service.”
According to Jones, Honor Flight Long Island is one of approximately 100 hubs throughout the country that fly veterans from regional airports to Baltimore, which is the closest airport to D.C. Veterans chosen for Honor Flight Long Island are from Nassau County, Suffolk County or New York City.
“We started here on Long Island in 2007, and we’ve taken over 1,700 vets from Long Island into Baltimore,” he said.
For Jones, LIMA and the relationship with Southwest Airlines, who sponsors the flight, is crucial to the success of the program.
“We’re blessed to have MacArthur because it’s better than flying out of New York City,” he said.
Next on the agenda for Honor Flight Long Island is to provide flights to veterans of other wars. They currently provide flights for Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, but will soon offer flights to veterans from more recent conflicts as well.
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