By FELICIA KRIEG
---- — PLATTSBURGH — There’s only one thing David Mitchell would change about his Honor Flight experience.
“It wasn’t long enough.”
When he returned from World War II, he received little or no recognition or thanks for his efforts overseas, the 87-year-old Cumberland Head resident said.
But the Honor Flight made up for that, Mitchell said, his voice wavering, tears in his eyes.
“I’m not usually emotional.”
Mitchell is a U.S. Army Air Corps veteran.
Rodney Wright, 87, of Rouses Point had a similar story.
“I’ve never talked about it and no one has asked about it,” Wright said, speaking about his time in the U.S. Army Infantry.
“We were drafted because we had a job to do and we did it,” said Robert Brooks, 87, of Plattsburgh, a U.S. Navy veteran.
Since it was founded earlier this year, North Country Honor Flight has recruited World War II veterans to travel free of charge to Washington, D.C., to see the monument built in their honor.
The National World War II Memorial wasn’t finished and opened to the public until 2004.
The first flight for North Country Honor Flight took off May 18.
The 18 veterans and their caretakers for the day, called guardians, met at the U.S. Oval at 5 a.m.
They boarded a bus that would take them to Albany International Airport for the flight to Baltimore and another bus ride to Washington, D.C.
“The red sun started to rise,” as the bus pulled away from the U.S. Oval and started the journey just before 5:30 a.m., Brooks said.
The morning was clear, but cold, at about 38 degrees.
With the bus was a motorcade and as the bus headed south on Interstate 87 at 70 mph, some motorcycles traveling in the opposite direction would turn around and join those escorting the veterans to their flight.
“If you missed the first 10 (motorcycles), you had about another 60 to look at,” Brooks said, laughing.
Danny Kaifetz, founder and director of North Country Honor Flight, said the group of motorcycles riding “wheel-to-wheel” stretched for about half a mile.
A New York State Police trooper escorted the entourage to Albany and a representative from each county’s Sheriff’s Department along the way would drive with the group to the county line.
Fire departments with their trucks were parked on many of the overpasses: The fire trucks were decked out in American flags with people waving and saluting the veterans as they drove by.
“Everywhere you went, people were waving,” Mitchell said.
The excitement of the trip’s schedule delighted Wright, Mitchell and Brooks.
“Every minute, there was something going on,” Wright said.
Upon arrival at the airport, the veterans were received with a warm welcome with a ceremony at which the New York State Director of Veterans Affairs spoke.
Wright had been to see the National World War II Memorial before, but the Honor Flight offered a new experience.
“Going with all these veterans, it was entirely different,” Wright said. “To see those who had never been there and the expressions on their faces (added to the experience).”
Mitchell said a young woman approached him at the memorial and asked if she could have her picture taken with him.
He was amazed and pleased to hear she was from the North Country.
The Saranac High School Freedom Club had surprised the veterans at the monument, bearing a banner with pictures of each of the them.
“It was heartwarming,” Brooks said.
Later, the girl came back with a dozen other Saranac students who all wanted their pictures taken with Mitchell, he said.
Their interest in him made him feel appreciated, he said.
In Washington, D.C., that day, temperatures were in the low 70s and the sky was overcast, Kaifetz said.
That setting seemed to underscore the reflective nature of each veteran’s experience because while the trip was a happy one, each man had a personal, somber moment at the memorial, Kaifetz said.
Each group picture was missing at least one or two veterans, each of whom would go to the part of the monument dedicated to the theater they served in and reflect, he said.
“Part of this was closure,” Kaifetz said. “They were having their own moment there.”
Mitchell said he paused for a while at the South Pacific area of the monument.
“When we were taking pictures there, we were approached by many people. Some of them were in uniform, former military and their wives and their granddaughters.”
They all wanted to thank Mitchell for his service.
“It brought you back 69 years,” Brooks said.
There is a clear feeling of ownership for the World War II veterans at the memorial, Kaifetz said.
“You still recognize that when you’re in their presence, you’re a guest,” Kaifetz said. “They own that place. It’s their monument.”
The trip was a whirlwind for the veterans, who didn’t make it back to Plattsburgh until about 2 a.m. the next morning.
“He was all bubbly when he got home,” said Wright’s wife, Gerolyn.
“I can’t say enough ... how honored I am to have gone on that flight,” Wright said.
Brooks said it was one of the best days of his life.
“It changed my life.”
The next Honor Flight will take off June 8 from the Plattsburgh International Airport.
Seats are still available for the Sept. 15 and Oct. 15 Honor Flights. Call Danny Kaifetz at 834-9901 for details or go to www.northcountryhonorflight.org.
Email Felicia Krieg:email@example.com
TO LEARN MORE
The next Honor Flight will take off on June 8 from the Plattsburgh International Airport.
Seats are still available for the September 15 and October 15 flights. Call Danny Kaifetz (518) 834-9901 for details.
To learn more about the organization, how to enroll in the next North Country Honor Flight or to make a donation, go to www.northcountryhonorflight.org