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'Place for healing to begin': First Honor Flight leaves from Jacksonville to honor Vietnam veterans

Honor Flight is a program that flies veterans up to Washington, all expenses paid, to see the memorials dedicated to them.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — History will be made this weekend as the first ever Honor Flight from Jacksonville takes off.

There are 128 Honor Flight hubs across the country, with multiple across the state of Florida. But Jacksonville has never had its own, until now. 

But it hasn't come easy, as this group faced the same COVID-19 challenges as so many others. 

"First Coast Honor Flight was officially formed, incorporated, March 3, 2020," said hub president Selena Hernandez-Haines. "That was about two weeks before the country shut down."

Honor Flight takes veterans on all-expense-paid trips up to Washington to visit the memorials and sites that have been built and dedicated to them. 

But Honor Flight shut down nationwide because of the pandemic.

The first flight was supposed to be August 2020. 

"Then it was October 2020," Hernandez-Haines said. "Then April 2021, May, June, August," she continued, counting the months that the trips had to be postponed. 

But she says there was a delicate balance that had to be made between the No. 1 priority of protecting the veterans and the need to honor a mostly aging population. 

"Time is short for these senior veterans," she said. Three veterans on the First Coast Honor Flight waitlist have died since the beginning of all the delays. 

"We need to honor them, safely, while we still can," she said. 

The flight will leave Jacksonville International Airport Saturday morning and after getting a tour of D.C., the veterans all return that same evening. 

The trip takes them to the World War II Memorial, Vietnam Wall, Korean War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and Women in Military Service memorial. 

Hernandez-Haines says they're being compliant with the Honor Flight Network requirements that all trip participants have either provided a negative PCR test result no more than 72 hours before the flight, or have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at least two weeks before the trip.  

Lorenzo Neely is a Vietnam War veteran who is taking the trip. 

"I was there for the Tet Offensive," Neely said. "It was a complete massacre."

He says he's had to deal with the horrible memories of Vietnam for decades, and it took a toll on him.

"Mentally it got to me," he said. "So here I am."

He and several other Vietnam Veterans who will be taking this trip say they hope it'll help them deal with the anger they faced when they came home from war. 

"I'm really looking forward to it," Neely said. "It's going to be beneficial to me, I know it's going to be alright." 

And that's exactly the goal, Hernandez-Haines said. 

"For many of them, these Vietnam veterans, many have said being on an Honor Flight  was the first time that they've felt appreciated and recognized," she said. 

"The Honor Flight is a place for healing to begin all these decades later."

You can click here for more information on how to get involved with First Coast Honor Flight, as they're always in need of volunteers, guardians and veterans to take on these trips.

During the pandemic, all honor flights were halted. Many hubs gave virtual tours of the memorials to veterans, and the first flight from Florida since the pandemic took off with the Space Coast Hub in September. 

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