MOUNT GILEAD — It was a challenge for retired dentist Allen Stojkovic to name the best part of his recent Veterans Honor Flight trip.
There were so many highlights,” said Stojkovic. “It was a magical day.”
“Our plane came in to land in Washington, DC and out the window you could see the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Then I knew it was real,” said Stojkovic.
Senior veterans on the flight included one World War II veteran, several Korean War veterans and more than 200 Vietnam veterans. The 246 veterans were in two planes with more than 100 guardians and volunteers. They boarded eight buses to visit several sites in the city.
Buses took them to the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where they watched the changing of the guard.
Everyone received a box lunch at the Air Force Memorial, then a visit to the World War II Memorial, Korean and Vietnam Veterans Memorials with dinner at the Women in Military Service Memorial.
An emotional moment for Stojkovic was at the Vietnam Memorial Wall when his “guardian” Krista Garner placed a Vietnam Honor Flight pin on his shirt. After giving him the pin, she placed a memorial coin in is hand and held his hand as he contemplated the wall and the loss of life in Vietnam, where he served for a year in 1969.
Garner has been an Honor Flight Guardian for five years. Guardians accompany veterans, hear their stories and are a big part of their day.
Garner is an EMS in Delaware County and lives in Grove City. She started with Honor Flight because they were in need of EMS personnel.
“I’m so glad Allen had a good day,” Garner said. “That’s what the goal of Honor Flight is — to give veterans the recognition they didn’t receive when they originally returned home from war.”
Two big surprises were in store for Stojkovic as he returned to Columbus. There was a “mail call” on the plane. Just as in the service, each veteran received a packet of mail that included letters and cards from friends and family that were sent to the Honor Flight P.O. Box.
“The mail call was a real surprise,” Stojkovic said. “I had no idea that my daughter Jenny had arranged for friends and family to send cards and letters. Thank you to all. It means a lot.”
The airport homecoming was overwhelming as veterans’ families and friends crowded into the airport entryway to the music of a band of bagpipers.
“The biggest surprise of the day was to see my grandson Wesley in his Cub Scout uniform with my granddaughter Julie. And behind them was all the rest of the family,” Stojkovic said.
“I had no idea the whole family was coming to greet me.”
Stojkovic was amazed at the efficiency of the Honor Flight organization from the time he arrived at John Glenn Airport in Columbus at 5:30 a.m., throughout the day to the time their airplanes touched down at 9:30 p.m. that evening.
“They are very well organized, and everyone is very kind,” Stojkovic added. “It was a long day, but it was a wonderful experience.”
Honor Flights return
Honor Flight Columbus Executive Director Pete MacKenzie said the Honor Flights were shut down for an entire year and then resumed this past August.
“The vaccines were a game changer for us to get back to almost normal,” MacKenzie said.
“Everyone on the flight is required to be vaccinated, including all the volunteers who help as well as the veterans.”
MacKenzie said that there were 1,500 veterans on the waiting list to go on flights this summer. 94 percent of those veterans were already vaccinated.
The main requirement to go on the Honor Flight is for veterans to have served before May 7, 1975. This includes World War II Veterans, Korean War and Vietnam War as well as those who served in the gap years between wars.
MacKenzie encourages any veteran to apply who served during that time. They may get an application on the website www.honorflightcmh.org, email: [email protected] or by calling the Honor Flight Columbus at 614-284-4987.