Flight of a lifetime: Cleveland veterans revisit wartime past, honor fallen heroes

Published: Nov. 10, 2018 at 1:04 AM EST
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AVON, OH (WOIO) - The gray skies above Rose Senior Living Center in Avon blanketed the brightness inside. Seven veterans -- all residents of the center -- had gathered for lunch.

We gathered to not only break bread, but chat about their time in the service, their motivations and their takeaways.

The reason? They were preparing for the trip of a lifetime. Honor Flight Cleveland, the local chapter of a national nonprofit organization, flew them—and 17 others, plus caregivers, to the nation’s capital for a tour of some of the country’s most iconic monuments and memorials.

Dick Martin served in the Coast Guard from 1951-1954. His motivations were simple.

“I wanted a place to sleep at night, didn’t want to sleep on the ground," he said with a chuckle that dismissed the hard reality of his life as a young man.

George Funtik fought in the Pacific theater in World War II. “We looked at it as being very honorable to be in the service, it wasn’t like it was a big job or anything.”

It didn’t take long to realize these men and women were all guided by a sense of purpose, regardless of the obstacles.

“Some of the men accepted us, others said no way. This is no place for a woman,” said Lila Corrigan, the only female veteran in the group.

She was an admiral’s aide in the Navy during WWII and the Korea War.

It was an enjoyable conversation, but one that turned toward the memorials themselves—and the conflicts they represent.

Gene Connor is a Korea War veteran. “The first Clevelander killed in the Korean war was a classmate of mine. I have other classmates who got killed there.”

George Funtik added, “You wondered if you were going to make it, really, because it was that close: they were flying all over us there.”

Retired Lt. Colonel Joe LaGrassa served in Vietnam. He’s been to Washington, D.C. before, but skipped going to the memorials. "I really haven’t seen the wall, and I didn’t want to. I was afraid to go. Now I’m at a point where I’d like to see it.”

All these years later, the emotions and memories are still there.

“One young man was being carried down the gangplank, and he looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure this the United States?’ And I said ‘Absolutely sure sailor, welcome home.’ He rolled off, hit the ground, spread eagle, and kissed the ground, and said ‘thank you God.'"

The trip to Washington, D.C. is courtesy of Honor Flight Cleveland, a local chapter of a national nonprofit that brings veterans to the capital city, provides a tour bus and meals at no cost.

The group of seven from Rose Senior Living were joined by 17 others, and volunteer ‘guardians’ or caretakers. In one day, they saw seven different sites: the World War II memorial, the Air Force memorial, the Marines memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Women in Military Service for America memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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