‘Honor Flight’ Gives a Lift to Grateful Veterans

‘Back then, when we came home, they didn’t have brass bands greeting us’ — James Clemente

“It is truly an honor to be able to do this for our Veterans. Each and every one of them are deserving of our thanks,” says Jennifer DeFrancesco, Executive Director of Hudson Valley Honor Flight (HVHF) 

HVHF is a nonprofit that flies Vets several times a year to Washington, D.C. from Stewart and Westchester County airports for visits to the memorials commemorating the wars in which they served. Honor Flight works with veterans of the Korean War, Cold War and Vietnam War, giving top priority to Veterans of World War II, as well as terminally ill veterans from other wars.  

DeFrancesco says her work with HVHF is highly rewarding: “To see the healing and closure that this experience has on our veterans, especially our Vietnam Veterans, makes all the hard work worthwhile… I am the daughter of a proud Marine who served in Vietnam and growing up I would listen to my dad’s stories… I wanted to join the military after high school but ended up staying on my path of becoming an RN  [Registered Nurse]. 

The “missions,” as they are called, take their guests to the major war memorials and monuments in Washington, and to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The Vets are treated to dinner before flying back home. They even have a “Mail Call” – where letters written by friends and family are given to the Honor Flight guests. When they return home, they’re greeted at the airport hangar by cheers and signs from friends and loved ones. 

“The people who put this together are amazing,” says Gary Leonardo of Peekskill. “I can’t thank them enough for what they did for me, and for all the people they honored. The Veterans of this country are so important.” He’s a retired Staff Sargent in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command. His Honor Flight was on May 12, 2023 –coincidentally the anniversary of his joining the Air Force.   

‘I get choked up even thinking about [how Honor Flight] made me feel important’ – Gary Leonardo
Leonardo enlisted in 1967, and served four years, including two three-month tours in Thailand as an engine mechanic working on B52 bombers and KC135 transport planes. “I loved serving my country, and after I was out, I realized how important it was,” says Leonardo. He’s grateful for how HVHF treated him, “I get choked up even thinking about it. They made me feel important. It was truly an experience I will never forget.” 

The same sentiment was voiced by James Clemente, a retired Army Specialist 4th Class who lives in Tarrytown, and was on the same Honor Flight as Leonardo. “I felt honored. Every Veteran should go on this flight to feel appreciated.” After being drafted, Clemente served from 1967-1969, including a one-year tour in Vietnam.   

“I felt honored [by HVHF],” he says. “I was proud to serve as a patriotic duty to my country. It was just part of life at that time. All my friends served. Back then, when we came home, they didn’t have brass bands greeting us. They [HVHF] did a great job. They treated us well. It is much appreciated.”  

Funded by donations from individuals, local businesses, and corporations, the Honor Flight is free of charge for Veterans.


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About the Author: Larry Epstein