WASHINGTON (WIVB) — Throughout the year, Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight takes local veterans on all-expenses-paid trips to the nation’s capital. News 4 had the special privilege of joining them on their recent journey of recognition.

52 brave men from the Korean, Vietnam and Cold War eras make up Mission 15. On Saturday, Oct. 14, they set off on a one-day trip to Washington, D.C. to see the memorials built to commemorate their courage.

“I feel blessed,” said U.S. Navy veteran Anthony Montoro. “I have a lot of gratitude that I have the ability to do something like this.”

Before dawn, the group of heroes stepped off the bus at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and boarded the flight onto their next charge: “one more tour with honor.”

Waiting for the veterans in Baltimore was a wave of gratitude flooding through the concourse.

“It touched my heart,” said U.S. Air Force veteran Michael Pilato. “You can’t begin to imagine the feeling I had walking down there and seeing what they’re doing for us. God bless every single one of them.”

The veterans left BWI Marshall Airport and embarked on the road to Washington. The rain came down but never dampened their spirits.

The first stop on the tour was the World War II Memorial. When the buses arrived, U.S. Army veteran Claude Imagna received a surprise welcome from his granddaughter, Jessica Enriquez, whom he hadn’t seen in a while.

“He’s a wonderful, wonderful grandpa,” Enriquez said. “We’re just so happy to be here to support him and see him.”

The tour had six other stops: the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Marine Corps War Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and the Military Women’s Memorial. Each stop allowed for solemn reflection.

“You can read about this stuff in books and you can see pictures, but until you’re here and experience it, there’s a feeling here – especially with the Honor Flight, amongst other veterans,” said Honor Flight guardian, Gordon Arber Jr. “It’s special.”

Arber was on the trip with his father, Gordon Arber Sr. — a U.S. Navy veteran who served during the Korean War.

“Just being here on the grounds and then realizing the freedom we have and what it cost, it hits you,” Arber Sr. said. “It’s emotional.”

There was also a feeling of brotherhood among the group of heroes.

“Once a veteran, always a veteran, and always a brother,” Pilato said. “I can walk up the street, find a veteran, and it’s like I knew him all my life. That’s the bond that we have.”

“A brotherhood is something way different than friendship,” said Jeremy Young, a four-time combat veteran in the U.S. Army who volunteered as an Honor Flight guardian. “It’s a group of people that come together quickly and connect quickly and have a very similar thing in common: one, military; and two, every single person here left to go to a combat zone not knowing if they were gonna come home again. That’s a feeling that not everybody experiences.”

At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands a wall of black granite bearing the names of over 58,000 servicemembers who never came home — those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“I brought a list of people I served with,” said U.S. Army veteran Tom Knude. “I have orders from those days and I was looking up names and, fortunately, I didn’t see any names. So most of us got out okay. There was injuries, there was accidents, there was Purple Hearts, but we all made it back.”

Montoro’s brother-in-law was killed in Vietnam. His name is one of the 58,000 inscribed on the wall in Washington. Montoro wanted to make a stone rubbing of his name to bring back home to his wife, but the rain coming down posed a challenge. When Montoro got to the wall, the rain stopped just long enough for Montoro to rub his name.

“We got down there and it was dry. There was a guy there that helped us out and we got to rub his name. It’s very moving going down there,” Montoro said. “All you see is names and you think about all those men, and I was there.”

At Arlington National Cemetary, the group witnessed the Changing of the Guard and members of Mission 15 laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. That includes Dr. John Williams — a U.S. Army veteran and two-time Purple Heart recipient.

“It was emotional, to say the least, but I enjoyed it,” Williams said. “And when they sounded taps, I really got emotional, but we made it through.”

Then at the Military Women’s Memorial, it was time for mail call. Letters from home capped off the gratifying tour.

After 14 hours, the heroes were Buffalo-bound. They touched down in Western New York and were led through the airport by pipes and drums. Behind the other side of the exit doors were two overdue words they’d longed to hear: “Welcome home.” It was a show of appreciation they earned and deserved.

“When we came back from Vietnam, there was none of that,” said U.S. Army veteran Ted Kniazuk. “We didn’t even wear our uniforms after that because of how people were going against us, you know, being a Vietnam vet. So this thing was really great. I enjoyed it a lot.”

“People don’t know what we went through,” said U.S. Army veteran Tom Dunfee. “I wanted to see that for a number of years but I finally did today and it felt great. It chokes me up.”

The trip was a proper “thank you” made possible by the Honor Flight Network and its volunteers.

“For the veterans to be able to do this for free, it takes a lot of work from the people who put this on and the sponsors,” said Honor Flight guardian, Tod Kniazuk. “To be able to showcase it and let more people know about it – whether it’s a veteran who would be eligible and didn’t know about it, or people who might want to support it – it’s really important for folks to know.”

“Even though I spent my career with veterans, I have never signed my name to that contract that they have. They’ll often tell me, ‘Oh, I don’t deserve this,’ or ‘I don’t deserve that. I didn’t serve in combat,’ but they all did something I never could do,” said Honor Flight guardian, Nancy Kaszynski. “Whether they sorted mail in Oklahoma or they were on the frontlines in Vietnam, they did more than I did and this is my way to give back.”

A way to give back to those who answered the call of duty through a shared mission of heart and soul — echoing the spirit of patriotism for the country they know and love.

“It’s real special… Once in a lifetime,” Ted Kniazuk said. “This will never happen again.”

If you are a local veteran and would like to apply for a future mission, Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight is always taking applications. The next flight will be an overnight journey on Saturday, April 27, and Sunday, April 28, 2024. There is also a wide range of volunteer opportunities available.

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Jordan Norkus is an award-winning anchor who has been on the News 4 team since 2021. See more of her work here or follow her on FacebookX and Instagram.