October 19, 2015
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By: Brittany Van Heyningen
Published October 17, 2015
To view the story online, visit: http://www.thevillagesdailysun.com/news/villages/article_c78e12ae-7483-11e5-a53c-a7250101e015.html?mode=story.
On Friday, a team of volunteers and guardians with the Villages Honor Flight Network drove to the prison in Bushnell to honor 11 inmates for their service in the U.S. armed forces.
“They’re true blue through and through,” flight director and Village of Lynnhaven resident Gary Kadow said about the veterans. “They are so proud of their military experience.”
Although all 11 veterans are currently inmates at the correctional institution, the day's events focused solely on their service to their country, not the crimes they committed after they were discharged from the military.
“The bottom line is that they served our country. They went into harm’s way,” said Jimmy Johnson, warden of the prison.
The Villages Honor Flight Network typically sends veterans on a day-trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the war memorials. A flight of that nature was out of the question for the inmates. Instead, the nonprofit decided to use the format of their flightless program, a virtual flight for veterans who cannot make the long trip to D.C.
The Sumter Correctional Institution is home to nearly 60 veterans. To decide who would participate on the honor flight, the veterans at the prison voted on which veterans deserved it the most.
Four Korean War veterans, six Vietnam War veterans and one Gulf War veteran were chosen, representing all five branches of the armed forces. However, none of the veterans was told what the day's events would include.
The day included a virtual tour of the D.C. war memorials, a video of the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, a virtual welcome-home celebration and a presentation of certificates and mementoes of the day's events to each veteran.
“We try to honor everybody and give back to the veterans,” said Honor Flight guardian Jim Dow, of the Village of Charlotte. “It's the right thing to do.”
Every veteran also received a manila envelope filled with letters of thanks for their military service. The note brought several of the veterans to tears.
As the day came to a close for the group, hands were held tightly and arms were wrapped around shoulders as veterans and guardians sang “God Bless America.”
“I've been on five honor flights, but this was so emotional,” said Debbie Diroff, of the Village of Charlotte. “They were so grateful. It's something I will never forget.”
As Florida's largest state agency, the Department of Corrections employs more than 23,000 members statewide, incarcerates more than 100,000 inmates and supervises nearly 140,000 offenders in the community.