Answering the country’s call is something more than 18 million United States residents have done, according to a report from CNN.com. With a growing number of men and women who served our country there are a variety of ways to show appreciation. In the 2007-2008 school year, a teacher at Williamstown High School caught wind of a unique program and wanted to bring it home.
Pam and Ron Pontano are the lead organizers for the Honor Flight of Southern New Jersey, an organization dedicated to providing a free trip for veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the different memorials.
“I was a teacher here, heard about Honor Flight and brought it back to the administration. They loved the idea and we ran with it,” Pam said.
While the Honor Flight hub is based out of Williamstown, the hub services all of New Jersey. Pam said five buses were driving around the North Jersey and Shore areas picking up veterans to bring them to Williamstown High School before their latest trip left on June 5.
“When we first started, we took two buses and had about 43 people,” she said.
The most recent trip had five full tour buses bringing 250 veterans from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., for the day.
The trip, which comes at no expense to the veterans, provides them with the experience of hanging with like-minded individuals and the ability to see different memorials in the country’s capital.
Veteran Aldo Casciorizzo, originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., but now of Monroe Township in Middlesex County, was making the trip with Alan Bernardini who, like Casciorizzo, is from Brooklyn by way of Monroe Township. Casciorizzo served in the Army in 1971 and 1972, and Bernardini served in the Army from 1966 to 1969.
“I’ve never been to Washington, this is my first time,” Casciorizzo said.
“It’s nice to be appreciated after all these years,” Bernardini added.
The Honor Flight of Southern New Jersey makes two trips to Washington, D.C., one in the spring, which is open to World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans. The one in the fall is only open to Vietnam War veterans.
“We started with one and we saw the need for two because of the Vietnam veterans,” Honor Flight board member Jim Richardson said. “We wanted to honor the Vietnam veterans. Every trip we take in October is strictly for Vietnam vets.”
Richardson, a veteran and history teacher at Williamstown High School, is in charge of the trip-day logistics. He ensures the buses are properly loaded while receiving help from JROTC cadets. He’s been a part of the Honor Flight since its inception.
“As a veteran, I enjoy working with the veterans,” he said. “My whole family was in the military, I went into the military. To give back to those who fought for us is an awesome experience”
Quite possibly the most unique part of the Honor Flight is the interaction between the veterans and the JROTC cadets.
“The importance of it all is a lot of the veterans, since their time in the military, have never opened up to a lot of people,” Richardson described. “This gives them an opportunity to open up to the same type of people, share their experience with our students and the community itself.”
“I like the idea of the students being able to connect with veterans,” Pam added. “It’s beneficial for both groups. … I see Honor Flight as a bridge between generations. We have younger veterans, female veterans who have not been recognized. We take Vietnam veterans who had a negative experience upon their return and it’s been cathartic for many of them.”
Juniors and JROTC cadets Bailey Hershman and Bella Colamarco are living testaments of this.
“Honor Flight is the prime example of what ROTC does and what we’re made to do,” Hershman said. “With being active with the veterans and being able to take part and give them the welcoming and departure they should have gotten when they deployed – it’s nice to give them that kind of send off they should have gotten years ago from everybody else in the states.”
“You get to talk to the veterans who didn’t get a proper welcome back, you get to hear their stories and hear people who’ve been through things you haven’t,” Colamarco added. “They teach you things you don’t know yet, teach you to be a leader and how to work with other people, which is nice.”
The Honor Flight of Southern New Jersey sends roughly 300 veterans every year to see the memorials in Washington, D.C., at no cost to the veterans. The only cost is for the guardians, who are essentially chaperones on the trip. According to Richardson, the cost to be a guardian on the trip is roughly $100, which is applied to the cost of renting tour buses.
For more information about the Honor Flight of Southern New Jersey, visit sjhonorflight.org. On the home page the application can be found for both the trip, which is open to all New Jersey veterans, and to be a guardian.