October 9, 2019

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press
Islamorada charterboat captain Skip Bradeen says his one-day Honor Flight trip with fellow veterans stands out as one of the most moving experiences in his life. Upon return to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport,  hundreds of school-age kids greeted the 73 veterans.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press Islamorada charterboat captain Skip Bradeen says his one-day Honor Flight trip with fellow veterans stands out as one of the most moving experiences in his life. Upon return to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport,  hundreds of school-age kids greeted the 73 veterans.

ISLAMORADA — “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, this is up there with the best,” Islamorada charterboat captain Skip Bradeen said of his journey with Honor Flight South Florida.

And the Sept. 21 homecoming at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport was “so wonderful.”

“There must have been 1,500 to 2,000 people there. Girl Scouts, Brownies, Boy Scouts, other groups,” Bradeen said. “This was the most heartfelt thing I’ve ever been involved in. … Everybody had something to give you. I was loaded down with so much stuff.”

Contributed
Val, a 101-year-old veteran of World War II, gets an appreciative kiss from Islamorada charterboat captain Skip Bradeen, a Vietnam veteran. A nurse, Val was the most senior member of the Honor Flight South Florida’s trip to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21.

Honor Flight South Florida, a chapter of a nationwide nonprofit organization, was founded to “transport America’s veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices” in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

An Air Force veteran, Bradeen spent 1963 at the Pleiku Air Base in Vietnam with a fueling squadron that supported U.S. and South Vietnam Air Force missions. “When I was there, the runway was pierced steel planks,” he recounted.

A friend told Bradeen about Honor Flight, which flies veterans at no cost for the one-day journey. On Sept. 21, Spirit Airlines flew the veterans — 12 who served in World War II, 19 from the Korean War and 42 from Vietnam.

“I was totally unaware of the program, but it’s a big thing,” Bradeen said. “The process took over a year before I was invited. The World War II and Korean vets get top priority.”

Honor Flight South Florida says the average age for surviving World War II veterans is 94, and 83 for the Korean veterans. Proof of military service (the DD-214 form) is required.

“I’m in my 70s, but I was one of the younger guys,” Bradeen said. “There are a lot of veterans here in the Keys who could qualify for the trip. I want to let them know about it so they can start the process to get on the list.”

Honor Flight organizers encourage the veterans to use Honor Chairs, also known as wheelchairs, during the long day. Not all do, but Bradeen elected to use one to show support for the older veterans.

Ralph Bradeen, Skip’s brother, accompanied him to serve as his “guardian” on the trip.

“Ralph enjoyed getting to push me around,” Bradeen laughed.

As the four buses with a police escort drove the veterans to their destinations, people along the streets waved and applauded.

The Mission 20 group gathered at the Iwo Jima statue at the U.S. Marine Memorial before heading to Arlington National Cemetery, where they saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In the afternoon, the Honor Flight South Florida group spent several hours in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool area to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the World War II Memorial.

“That was all very moving,” said Bradeen, who left a letter at the Vietnam Memorial penned by a friend.

On the flight back, Honor Flight staff held Mail Call — letters collected by the organization from friends of the veterans, thanking them for their service. Bradeen’s mail bundle was thick.

Some notes were written as if they were sent to a young serviceman in a faraway post in 1963.

“Have you heard about this band called The Beatles?” one said.

Veterans from Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties are eligible. For more information, go online to honorflightsouthflorida.org or call 855-359-1838.

kwadlow@keysnews.com