Tampa Palms resident Melanie Otte remembers her grandfather’s stories about World War II. He would regale the family about his wartime exploits, as they leafed through his photo albums, and proudly show off a picture of the Enola Gay — the first aircraft ever to drop an atomic bomb — that he had to jump a fence to take the photo with a small spy camera.
It never really hit her, though, what his service meant to him until she recently chose to take part in an Honor Flight.
Otte and Wesley Chapel resident Jennifer Lee, both members of the Greater Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC)’s New Tampa Junior Woman’s Club, served as volunteer guardians to a pair of U.S. Military veterans on Sept. 22, an experience that left both amazed, appreciative and very much in awe.
“I had been to Washington, DC, as a kid, but this was a much more moving experience,’’ Otte says. “I mean, standing there with a person who lived it, that was just something totally different.”
Honor Flights are one-day trips organized by non-profit organizations dedicated to providing a way for veterans to visit the monuments created in the name of their service scattered throughout the nation’s capital.
Last year, the New Tampa Junior Woman’s Club donated $400 so one veteran could make the trip. That inspired Otte and Lee to get involved as Honor Flight volunteers this year.
Otte served as a volunteer guardian to 80-year-old Korean War U.S. Air Force Military Police veteran Frank Kynion, who lives in St. Petersburg, while Lee escorted Laura Tilton, a 92-year-old Venice resident and World War II veteran.
The day of the Honor Flight began with alarm clocks going off at 3 a.m. for the volunteers, a donated breakfast from McDonald’s at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport, and a 4 a.m. flight to the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport with about 80 other veterans and their guardians.
When they got off the plane, the spunky Tilton asked Lee if the wheelchair had a speed limit, and Lee asked if she was pushing too fast.
“No, pick it up, we got things to see,’’ Tilton told her with glee.
“When we were at the Korean War Memorial, it was very somber,” says Otte. “Frank was visibly taken aback. You could tell he was welling up.”
Otte said the listing of the Korean’s War’s U.S. fatalities (almost 40,000, with more than 100,000 injured) and the 19 haunting seven-foot-tall stainless steel statues standing in a patch of juniper bushes at the memorial was overwhelming.
Lee pushed Tilton around, although the former Naval Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)/pharmacy maid, was able to stand and walk for short periods of time.
“She was a lot of fun,’’ Lee says. “I think a lot of them just appreciated the one-on-one attention. She told me, ‘I had so much fun. I like to giggle, you like to giggle. She told me I was now her third daughter.”
As the vets returned to Florida, they read dozens of letters written to them by school children and adults, thanking them for their service and dedication. When the plane landed back in Clearwater, a throng of roughly 800 people, including a band, were there to greet them.
Kynion, who married a Japanese woman after the war, says he faced discrimination as a result, and also lived through the anti-military era of the Vietnam War, so he was humbled by the support. In fact, many of the veterans, on multiple occasions, asked why everyone was doing this for them.
Otte told him the answer was simple: “Because you are our heros.”
The GFWC New Tampa Junior Woman’s Club meets the second Monday of every month at 6:30 p.m. at the New Tampa YMCA (16221 Compton Dr. in Tampa Palms). For more info, visit GFWCNewTampaJuniors.org.