During the past 11 years nearly 4,000 Northeast Ohio veterans have flown on a free trip to Washington, D.C., to view our nation’s military monuments and memorials.
That trip was made possible by Honor Flight Cleveland – a nonprofit organization that will be saluted, along with its president, Joe Benedict, in the annual Joint Veterans’ Council of Cuyahoga County (JVCOCC) luncheon on February 17.
Benedict will receive the Outstanding Veteran of the Year Award at the luncheon. But he insists that it is Honor Flight Cleveland, not him, being recognized.
Yet his Navy experience during the war in Vietnam gave Benedict an understanding of the service and sacrifice of the vets who have made the flight- mostly from World War II, but in recent years, more who served in the Korean War.
Benedict had a career Navy father whose 50-year service started the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed during World War II.
That example influenced Benedict’s decision to enlist in the Navy. He reported to boot camp a week after graduating from Parma High School in 1964.
“I always wanted to serve,” Benedict, 71, of Old Brooklyn, said. “I suppose if you’re raised that way, you’re either going to love it or not like it.”
Benedict loved it, and became an aviation electrician with a unit of F4-Phantom jets aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin Roosevelt — the “Rustie Rosie” as this vintage World War II carrier was called by its crew.
“I liked being in the military,” Benedict recalled. “I just liked everything about it, actually.”
There were some tense times, such as a storm the carrier once hit while rounding South Africa. The storm “threw waves almost as high as the ship, 60 feet off the deck,” Benedict recalled.
At times, the carrier listed at a 35-degree angle. “That was wild,” Benedict said. “I don’t think it was scary so much as a lot guys got seasick who never got seasick before.”
The carrier was sent to support the air campaign in Vietnam in 1966.
There, Benedict learned the cost of military service. “We lost 25 guys on our ship, through accidents or pilots who were shot down,” he said.
After Vietnam, the carrier made a cruise to the Mediterranean Sea and Benedict’s term of enlistment ran out.
He decided to leave the Navy for reasons he can’t fully explain, but still regrets. “Young and dumb,” he said with a smile and a shrug.
After the service he worked for Warwick Communications, selling telecommunications equipment and systems for 37 years. He and his wife Kathy have been married for 47 years and have two daughters.
In 2007, a buddy at his Vietnam Veterans of America chapter asked Benedict if he’d be interested in being an Honor Flight Cleveland guardian – escorting veterans on free trips to Washington, D.C.
Benedict gave it a try and was hooked. “It’s the greatest program I’ve ever been associated with,” said Benedict, who also noted that he participates as a way of honoring the memory of his father (who died in 2004).
Honor Flight Cleveland is one of a network of 131 Honor Flight hubs, covering 45 states across the nation. More than 180,000 World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veterans have been flown to the capital since 2005.
Honor Flight Cleveland now makes seven flights a year, from April through October. Each flight carries 25 veterans, matched with a guardian, plus a nurse or paramedic, and chapter board members.
Vets fly free. Guardians pay $250 to cover the airfare, meals, transportation and training.
They’re in for a long day, typically from 4 a.m. to midnight, to see sights including the World War II Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Air Force and Marine Corps War Memorials, Navy Memorial, and the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
Benedict said the reaction of veterans to the memorials includes “everything you could possibly think of – they cry, they smile, they’re solemn.
“The great reaction comes from other people who are visiting,” he added. “They walk up and congratulate these guys. That’s the fun part.
“At the airports, that’s the most emotional,” Benedict continued. “As we’re going down the corridor, it’s announced who we are, and we’ve got 25 World War II and Korean War guys in wheelchairs, going down in single file, and everybody in the airport stands up and claps, comes over and shakes their hands. Women come over and kiss ’em. These guys don’t know what to do next.”
For most veterans, the trip also brings back memories.
“They don’t always give you all their memories, obviously, because they might be hard to express, or they’d sit there and cry all day,” Benedict said.
But they do tell some unbelievable stories, “they had some tremendous experiences,” he added. “This is living history were listening to.”
Benedict said one Cleveland Honor Flight included two man who were Czechoslovakians imprisoned by the Nazis in a concentration camp during World War II. The camp was liberated by GIs including another man on the same flight.
“They ended up going on the same flight and told their story,” Benedict said.
There was the veteran who wanted to be buried wearing a Marine uniform, and the group had one made for him to wear on the flight.
Benedict said he was told by the guardian of that vet who had dementia, that his father hadn’t smiled in two years until taking the flight.
Invariably on the trip back home, while the exhausted guardians catch some sleep, the vets are usually still going strong.
“They are so pumped, and they talk and they talk,” Benedict said. “They’re just having a good time.”
In recent years as the number of surviving World War II vets has decreased, Honor Flight Cleveland has been taking more Korean War veterans.
Top priority in flight reservations is given to terminally ill TLC (“their last chance”) veterans of any era.
The program has relied on grants and donations to cover the $8,000 cost of each flight.
But it recently got a windfall from part of the ill-gotten gains of John Donald Cody, aka “Bobby Thompson,” who was convicted in 2013 of running a bogus national veterans charity.
Cleveland Honor Flight received $115,000 from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted the con man.
The group also has used a grant from Parker Hannifin Corporation and a Krupp Foundation grant (through the Department of Veterans Affairs) to create a 19-minute virtual-reality flight, viewed through a headset, for vets too infirm to fly.
Benedict has been on some 80 flights and noted that it never gets old. “Never. Everything changes once you get to the airport. There’s all different guys with all different stories, and all different views,” he said.
There’s a personal reward, too.
“I just feel good,” Benedict said. “I’m glad to see these guys and gals enjoying it. You can see it on their faces, that’s for sure. There’s nothing phony about these people.”
And if you miss the appreciation in their faces, you’ll hear it in their words, Benedict added.
“When we get done, we get a lot of thank-yous,” he said. “I can show you dozens and dozens of letters, saying at the end, ‘This was the greatest day of my life.’
“What else can you ask?”
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