WASHINGTON - World War II veterans, their accompanying family members, and more than a dozen volunteers gathered in Brewster, N.Y., Sept. 17, to board buses bound for the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Nearly 300 miles southwest at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling U.S. Air Force Honor Guard airmen began the meticulous preparation of their uniforms, rifles, swords and flags for a unique ceremony paying tribute to these veterans traveling so far.
New York State Sen. Greg Ball, who is a retired Air Force officer, teamed with Heroes in Transition and the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 21, in planning an all-expenses-paid bus trip for 42 World War II veterans from New York to visit the National World War II Memorial located on the National Mall.
"According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, our World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 600 per day," Ball said. "These brave men and women gave so much to fight for our nation's safety and freedom. This trip will never be forgotten and is a true and fitting tribute to the great sacrifices these brave souls have made."
U.S. Reps. Chris Gibson and Sean Patrick Maloney, both of New York, greeted veterans and their families upon their arrival at the ceremony. As the son of a Navy veteran, Maloney said it was a tremendous honor to welcome American heroes to the nation's capital.
"We can never fully repay our veterans," Maloney said. "Simply pausing for a moment to thank them for their service is the least we can do. We must never stop honoring those who sacrificed so much in defense of our freedom."
The Honor Guard's participation was possible because of a long-time friendship between Ball and Maj. Ryan VanVeelen, operations officer for the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard.
"I follow Greg's political web page, as well as being friends with him on Facebook. I saw a couple of his posts describing the trip down here and asked if there was any help he needed on this end," VanVeelen said. "The airmen in the Honor Guard are outstanding philanthropists. I know they are always willing and able to help out at events just like this."
Aside from making the day more special, VanVeelen also wanted to give his Airmen an opportunity to meet the veterans and have a dialogue about service with them.
"Our airmen have the unique opportunity to honor our fallen heroes every day at Arlington National Cemetery. They do it with respect and they do it with pride," VanVeelen said. "In my eyes, this was an opportunity to honor our national heroes face to face, to interact with them and to learn from them. Most importantly, it gives us a chance to show them in person the respect and pride we feel for them."
New York veterans and their families journeyed from a number of Hudson Valley towns in upstate New York. Making the trip was two-time prisoner of war Paul Raphael, of Montrose, N.Y. He helped Ball lay a wreath honoring America's greatest generation. Accompanying him was Eugene Parrotta, a Vietnam veteran and two-time Purple Heart recipient and chairman of Ball's Veterans' Advisory Council.
The day continued back at JBAB where guests watched a demonstration by the Honor Guard's drill team. They were also entertained by a couple of musical numbers by the U.S. Air Force Band's Strolling Strings. The group's rendition of "New York, New York" particularly won many smiles and applause from the group of veterans and their families.
"I have never been so proud in all my life as I am right now. God Bless America," said Herman Schreiber, a U.S. Army veteran who was part of the trip.