Fifty-five World War II veterans will visit their war memorial today in Washington, D.C., for free thanks to the efforts of local Rotarians.
Rotary International District 6960, which covers Cape Coral, selects a project each year for the 52 clubs within its area to work on. This year, it decided to partner with the Honor Flight Network to help local veterans.
"Southwest Florida has the highest population of World War II veterans," Sherry Penfield, a Rotarian and the district's project coordinator, said.
She explained that Honor Flight, which is a nationwide organization, has been working since 2005 to send veterans to the World War II memorial free of charge.
Upon partnering with the Southwest Florida Honor Flight hub, the district turned to its clubs and raised about $56,000 to pay for the veterans' trip.
"The network stepped in to provide buses and some meals," Penfield said.
After leaving Southwest Florida International Airport this morning, the group is taking a direct flight to Reagan National Airport. Buses will take them to the memorial, then to the Tomb of the Unknowns for the Changing of the Guard.
Penfield said the group will see the Iwo Jima Memorial, and possibly the memorials for those who served in the Vietnam War and Korean War.
"We will attempt to let them see as many memorials as time allows us to," she said.
Tonight, the group will fly back out of Reagan and return to Fort Myers.
"They're in for a long day," Penfield said.
Each veteran will have a guardian, or chaperon, to accompany them.
"This is a generation that probably can't travel on their own," she said, adding that many World War II vets might never see the memorial without Honor Flight.
"This network and others like it are trying to get them there as soon as possible," Penfield said. "There's not a lot of time."
It is estimated that several hundred World War II veterans die each day.
"It's an experience for the guardians, it's an experience for the veterans," she said. "They start to bond with each other and with the guardians."
From the Rotary Club of Cape Coral, World War II veterans Paul Sanborn and Tom Bowen are going. Both served in the U.S. Air Corps from 1942 to 1946.
"This will be my first time," Bowen, who was a radio operator mechanic instructor, said. "I'm just absolutely delighted that I am able to go."
He said his thoughts and prayers are with those killed in battle.
"It's been over 60 years, and naturally, we would like to see that and honor those who have fallen before us," Bowen said. "Many of my students went right from radio school into combat units, and I've heard back that many of them didn't make it after their missions. My prayers are always with them."
He added that at 91, he is thrilled to get to see the memorial.
"I'm extremely grateful that I'm here to experience it," Bowen said.
Though it will be Sanborn's second time seeing the World War II memorial, the former radio operator gunner is still honored for the chance to go.
"It's a huge memorial, and it has great significance to any World War II veteran," he said, adding that he and his wife visited it a couple of years ago. "I wanted to go back and see what I might have missed the first time."
Sanborn also is looking forward to the Changing of the Guard.
"I have never seen the Changing of the Guard," he said.
Penfield said more than 100 veterans applied to go on the trip. However, some applicants did not qualify, such as if they were on an oxygen tank.
The district gave priority to those who had already applied to the Honor Flight Network, as well as to Rotarians for serving their community.
"They served the war and then came back to serve as a Rotarian," she said.
Sanborn has been a Rotary member for 48 years. Bowen joined in 1973.
Dominic Muhlenbruch, the president of the Rotary Club of Cape Coral, is attending the trip as a guardian, along with three other club members.
It will be Muhlenbruch's first time visiting Washington, D.C.
"What I'm looking forward to is the reaction of the World War II veterans," he said. "It's not really for my benefit. It's for the World War II veterans."
Each guardian had to pay $500 to take part in the Honor Flight.
"I consider it an honor to be there with them," Muhlenbruch said.
He explained that his father served in World War II by lying about his age and enlisting at 16. Though the memorial is of importance to him because of his family's history and service, his focus will remain on his charge, Bowen.
"That will be my focus," Muhlenbruch said. "Tom and his safety."
He planned to bring a camera so Bowen did not have to worry about it.
"So he has memories he can look at," Muhlenbruch said.
Asked about Honor Flight, he called the organization fantastic.
"It's giving them (veterans) an opportunity," he said. "Not to relive the experience, but to be able to say goodbye to some of their friends."
Members of the district's clubs, including the Rotary Club of Cape Coral North and Rotary Club of Cape Coral Goldcoast, were encouraged to stop by the airport for the goodbye send off and for the welcome home return.