Honor Flights return with vets’ trip | Veterans

On Flag Day, June 14, Everett (Bill) Riecke of Homosassa and seven other Citrus County veterans may have saluted the flag.

But they, in turn, were saluted when they embarked that day on an Honor Flight to Washington, DC, and became some of the first Citrus County veterans since COVID to participate in the Honor Flight program.

The Honor Flight Network is a national program that honors veterans by flying them for free to the nation’s capital for a day of visits to national monuments and recognition for their military service.

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Locally, area Realtor Barbara Mills helps facilitate the veterans’ trips through her participation as guardian coordinator with the West Central Florida hub of the program. Several days before the vets take off, the Olive Garden in Inverness provides a lunch for them.

For Riecke, all those hands behind the scenes and all those volunteers present on the day of the flight made the experience “better than outstanding, better than excellent,” he said.

Riecke, 85, who served 20 years in the Air Force, was a chief master sergeant and aircraft mechanic. He served at six air bases in the US and trained at two more. He spent three years at Hahn Air Base in Germany.

In 1969, he was sent to Vietnam. He previously stated in an interview that he had 15 people working for him in Vietnam in an aero repair section. And they “worked around the clock. … We did everything to an airplane you could think of.” He said he also picked up “the nuts and bolts in the back of my neck to prove it.”

After Vietnam, Riecke was sent to Okinawa as flight chief, maintenance superintendent, and line chief of 18 aircraft. The aircraft were used in reconnaissance. He also was deployed to Taiwan for two months.

Then it was back stateside to Alaska’s Shemya Air Base, now Eareckson Air Station, and then to Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, his home state. He retired from Ellsworth.

Riecke told how at an Honor Flight briefing in Clearwater before the flight, he talked to one vet and it turned out Riecke knew the veteran’s father. The vet’s dad had been chief master sergeant in one section at Ellsworth at the same time Riecke was chief master sergeant in another section.

Mills, the Realtor who helps make the Honor Flights possible for Citrus County veterans, said she’s accompanied the flights of veterans at least one-third of the time since Honor Flight No. 3. The Flag Day flight was Flight No. 42. Mills was not able to accompany the honorees this time. When she goes, she doesn’t fly, but drives up to Washington, DC, to meet the veterans and joins them on a bus there.

“It’s been an amazing ride,” she said. “I love touring with those guys. There’s always a different story.”

Those veterans going from Citrus County included five women and three men. They are: Michael Cokus, Homosassa; Carole Jasler, Hernando; Merrily LeVee, Crystal River; Paul Perregaux, Hernando; Carole Philips, Homosassa; Harriet Porter, Crystal River; Patricia Turner, Hernando; and Riecke.

Riecke told how the veterans, on the day of the Honor Flight, had to be at the St. Pete/Clearwater International Airport at 4 am for their Allegiant flight to the capital. They had prepared for the flight at the luncheon the previous week at the Inverness Olive Garden and also at a briefing in Clearwater.

Riecke was accompanied by his grandson, Dak Riecke, who served as his “guardian.”

Mills explained each veteran is assigned a “guardian” to help make sure all goes right. Although the veteran’s flights are free, the guardians, who volunteer for the positions, pay for the flight.

Virginia Lesser, the general manager of the Inverness Olive Garden, said she was a guardian to a Korean War veteran about five years ago. She became involved in the Honor Flight program because of Mills, whom she met as a customer at the restaurant.

She said as a guardian, “It was wonderful to be able to watch (the vets) experience this and to know what a fantastic thing it is to go.”

Lesser and the Olive Garden have provided the free lunches to the veterans at least five times, she said, because “We want to be part of the community.”

At the restaurant, each veteran was presented with a patriotic-themed quilt, fashioned by Citrus County seamstresses and sisters, Rose O’Toole and Kathy Boggess. Don Luke of Inverness, who took an Honor Flight in May, also attended the luncheon at the Olive Garden because his flight had not included Citrus County folks, Mills said.

The day of the Flag Day flight, Riecke and guardian Dak, as well as the other veterans, landed at Baltimore/Washington International Airport at 7:30 am and then boarded buses, headed for the Air Force Memorial.

Riecke said the memorial is designed to look like the contrails of the Thunder Birds, the Air Force’s precision flight team. After lunch at the Air Force Memorial, the veterans headed for the World War II Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

Riecke told how the statues of soldiers at the Korean Memorial are about 7 feet tall and the memorial became one of his favorites.

At the World War II Memorial, the veterans saw two WWII veterans visiting, as well as a group of high school students. The teens were making noise and Riecke told them to be quiet. Then he gave a little talk, telling them the veterans had fought for their freedom.

The students “clapped and yelled,” Riecke said. Upon his return at the airport in Clearwater, one of the volunteers said to him, “I was behind you today. You did a fantastic job,” Riecke reported.

The veterans also experienced such things as a man playing all the military songs on his harmonica, and a “mail call” while in flight, in which each had his or her name called and was given letters from family, friends, and strangers who wanted to pay tribute to the vets.

When they landed in Clearwater, “there must have been about 250 people greeting us,” Riecke said. There were police, fire, and highway patrol officers. There was a black powder rifle unit, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. All saluted as the veterans passed.

Retired Brig. Gene. Thomas J. Sellars of Homosassa greeted the group.

“It was out of this world,” Riecke said.

For information about the Honor Flight, see www.honorflight.org. Veterans can apply online. However, Barbara Mills recommended that Citrus County veterans contact her for an application. She can help with carpooling and in making sure the Citrus County vets are invited to the Olive Garden luncheon. She said the Honor Flights are focusing on World War II, Korean, and Vietnam veterans. Her phone number is 352-422-6236.

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