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‘Highlight of my life,’ Coarsegold veteran says of latest Central Valley Honor Flight

By Lauren Mueller

Special to Sierra Star

Donald Leeworthy, 85 of Coarsegold, is greeted by enthusiastic volunteers during the Central Valley Honor Flight.
Donald Leeworthy, 85 of Coarsegold, is greeted by enthusiastic volunteers during the Central Valley Honor Flight. Special to Sierra Star

Donald “Don” Leeworthy, 85, of Coarsegold called the latest Central Valley Honor Flight “the highlight of my life.”

Fellow Coarsegold resident Fernando Villanueva, 83, agreed with him, saying he “enjoyed every minute of it.”

Leeworthy, Villanueva and 64 other veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War went on the 13th Central Valley Honor Flight last week. A total of 154 people, including guardians, medical staff, a safety team and media personnel, made the trip to Washington on a chartered MD80 jet.

One of the most popular attractions for the veterans was the U.S. Marine Memorial - the statue of the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising during World War II.

It wasn’t uncommon to see the veterans taking pictures, posing as though they were holding the flag alongside the Marines in the statue.

During their whirlwind, three-day journey to the different monuments and memorials, some veterans grabbed the chance to sit on a Harley Davidson motorcycle ridden by Officer Steven Jones - the head of the police escort that accompanied the three Honor Flight buses.

Jones could be seen in front of the front bus (dubbed the blue bus), parting traffic “like the sea.” At one point during the third and final day of the Honor Flight visit, Jones rode his motorcycle with no hands, waving traffic off to either side of the crowded freeway.

After the stop at the Iwo Jima memorial, the buses took the Honor Flight to the World War II memorial, where a traditional group photo was taken.

There was a very special moment at the World War II memorial for this honor flight. World War II veteran Roy Haury of Patterson was given the Purple Heart that his brother - who died in combat in World War II - had earned. The precious award had gone missing, until a family member found it tucked away in a trunk in their closet. It was given to the Honor Flight team and presented to Haury by Representative Jeff Denham during the trip, and there was not a dry eye during the presentation of the award.

At the Korean War memorial, a Central Valley Honor Flight first happened: a group photo was taken at the memorial. This was to honor veteran Robert “Bob” Marienau, who was scheduled to go on the trip but passed away in January. The group took a photo with a picture of him. This photo was then given to Marienau’s wife when the Honor Flight returned to Fresno.

Villanueva, who served as a Marine in Korea, appreciated this memorial most of all.

“I loved it, they did a good job on it,” Villanueva said. “It was just the wrong time of the day to see it I guess, because of the rain. I couldn’t see the pictures on the wall real well.”

The Vietnam memorial held special significance for Mark Hopkins, the trip leader. His father served in Vietnam and attended the trip as a guardian.

“Seeing him get to see his memorial - that was tough for me,” Hopkins said. “The Honor Flight has really been an opening point for me and my dad. It’s let him open up to me about his time in the war.”

The last day of the Honor flight started at Arlington National Cemetery with the Changing of the Guard ceremony promptly at 9 a.m.

“It (the ceremony) was, without a doubt, my favorite part of the trip,” Leeworthy said.

During the ceremony, soldiers walked silently in front of the tomb. However, toward the end, as the soldier who was being relieved of duty was exiting, the commanding officer scuffed his heels on pavement as he walked. This caused some confusion among the gathered veterans, which was later explained on the bus.

“When they scuff their heels, it’s a sign of respect,” said Hopkins. “It’s the only way they (the soldiers) can communicate with you guys (the veterans). It’s their way of saluting you.”

Back at the airport at the end of the trip, the plane was loaded before everyone was informed the pilot had fallen ill and the flight was delayed. Everyone was deplaned, waiting near gate D22 at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport for news.

Thankfully another pilot was found.

Naturally, the response was to have a pizza party.

“When was the last time you saw 131 people have a pizza party in the middle of an airport,” Hopkins laughed. The jet was filled with veterans once more, making its way to Fresno Yosemite International Airport. It was a straight flight, touching down at approximately 9:30 p.m. Fresno time on April 26.

Though late, the flight was greeted with an airport filled with people holding signs and waving American flags to welcome the veterans home.

For Leeworthy, it was seeing the military personnel from the Naval Air Force Base in Lemoore that meant a lot. He served in the Air Force in the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing during the Korean War. It was nostalgic for him to see the soldiers dressed in white welcoming him home.

“Most of these guys didn’t get a ticker-tape parade when they came home,” Hopkins said. “That’s what this is about: them getting the thank you they deserve.”

The “Honor Flight Network” was founded in 2004 with the mission of taking veterans to see their memorials in Washington. Central Valley Honor Flight started its chapter in 2013 and has done 13 honor flights, taking a total of 866 veterans to see their memorials.

The Honor Flight is funded completely by individuals, not by large corporations. The flight is already fully funded for October this year, but can always use donations. To donate - or to find out how to participate - visit Central Valley Honor Flight’s website at www.cvhonorflight.org.

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