Suncoast residents raising money to take WWII veterans to Washington D.C.

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BRADENTON, FLA. - Over 16 million men and women served in the Armed Forces during World War II. But the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. did not open until 2004 and many veterans have not even seen the memorial built in their honor.

The Southwest Florida Honor Flight is working to change that by flying Suncoast area WWII veterans to our Nations Capitol free of charge.

“It takes about $47,000 for me to take 50 veterans up to D.C.,” explained Don Vecoli, founder and president of Southwest Florida Honor Flight. To raise the money, Vecoli relies on donations and fundraising events.

On Sunday, the Disabled American Veteran Chapter 18 in Bradenton, hosted an Honor Flight fundraiser with a car wash, bake sale, and silent auction.

Vecoli told ABC 7, funding the Honor Flights is an enormous amount of work but he says it is all worth it once the veterans see their memorial.

“There is nothing, no feeling, no money that could pay for this experience. They get off the plane in D.C. and there is anywhere from a 100 to 300 people there to greet these guys and that is when they know [it is] something special.”

During the Honor Flight, volunteers travel with the veterans and serve as a personal escorts called guardians. Maria Naliwaika is a Southwest Florida Honor Flight board member but she has also volunteered as a guardian. She said the trip is very emotional for the veterans, especially when they arrive at Reagan International Airport.

“They have no idea as they deplane what is going to be happening and it is so wonderful to see the tears that are coming down there eyes. It is very emotional for them,” said Naliwaika.

WWII Veteran Lew Card was able to see the WWII Memorial on an Honor Flight trip. “The only thing they don’t give you on the flight is a box of Kleenex and you need it, you really need it,” said Card.

He was so moved by the experience that he now serves as an Honor Flight volunteer fundraiser so other veterans can make the day long trip.

“You get the VIP treatment from the start of the day till you come back at night. On the plane back it is very quiet, all those old guys, not me, the old guys are sleeping,” Card explained with a laugh.

The 15th Southwest Florida Honor Flight is schedule to depart for Washington D.C. in June. Vecoli says they are accepting applications for the 16th Southwest Florida Honor Flight in September.

To make a donation or find out more information go to