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Jan Fowler, holding the poster, greets 32 U.S. military veterans who were returning home from Washington, D. C., at Ontario International Airport. 

Last Sunday, I was invited to wear my “Ms. Super Senior California USA” crown and sash and join more than two hundred cheering men, women, and children who were gathering at Ontario International Airport at noon to extend a surprise welcome to 32 U.S. military veterans who were returning home from Washington, D. C.

These men and women had served our country in World War II, Korea or Vietnam, and had just been treated to an all-expense paid three-day tour of memorials that were dedicated to their branch of heroic service.

For many veterans, the trip was a dream come true.

Trips such as these are made possible by 501(c)(3) nationwide nonprofits called Honor Flight. The group, which invited me to attend for the second time, is Honor Flight-Inland Empire under the administrative direction of Marva X. Marva’s group reaches out to numerous veterans from Palm Springs to the Pacific, Barstow to Temecula and covers San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Marva is frequently recognized for her diligent efforts to locate and honor these service men and women with the unexpected invitation to visit the nation’s capitol and tour the war memorials.

When I arrived at the Ontario airport, I felt mounting excitement as groups formed in the designated Southwest Airlines baggage claim area awaiting the arrival of the veterans.

Among those gathered to greet the vets with eagerness were Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, family members, friends and numerous school-age children waving colorful “welcome home” posters, flags, balloons and pompoms. Small groups of service dogs were also assembled, decked out in colorful red, white and blue neckerchiefs.

Even motorcycle riders were on cue to rev up their cheers as airport elevator doors opened to unload veterans, most of whom were pushed by designees toward the baggage claim area in wheelchairs.

Eighteen of the veterans were accompanied by “trained guardians” composed of men, women or family members who had volunteered to pay $1,500 of their own money for the privilege of assisting vets and ensuring their safety throughout their entire three-day trip, especially with walkers or wheelchairs during the many sightseeing excursions, including Arlington National Cemetery.

About an hour before landing in Ontario, the veterans were asked if they could ever recall returning home to a hero’s welcome after completing service to their country many years ago. Most shook their heads no. It was then that each vet was handed a packet of 40-or-so letters written by school children, teachers and adults from all walks of life thanking them for their bravery and service to our country.

It was a privilege to be part of this heroes’ welcome, to see the surprise, tears, joy and happiness on the faces of men and women who had served the United States when they were enthusiastically welcomed home and applauded by a cheering crowd in Ontario. And I felt most honored to have shaken their hands as I thanked them for their many sacrifices for our nation.

Honor Flights are available to veterans from all branches of service approximately once a year, depending upon available funding. Outreach programs to veterans are supported in different ways, such as contributions from individuals, businesses or organizations as well as fundraisers and charitable donations.

But there are still many forgotten heroes, aren’t there? So I would urge everyone to greet military men and women wherever we go and express our appreciation to them for service to our country.

Let freedom ring! ­

Honor Flight Inland Empire

History: Formed in 2010 to assist veterans of “The Greatest Generation” in visiting memorials dedicated to their heroism.

California hubs: For information local to California, visit the website at honorflightie.org and click on the California map to find the 10 hubs in California.

For more information: Contact Marva X. at gigiluvs@sbcglobal.net or at (909) 580-7363.

Jan Fowler is an award-winning columnist and author. She was voted “Ms. Super Senior California USA”, and may be contacted at janfowlerusa@yahoo.com