An honor guard stood at attention waiting for the VIP guests to arrive.
One by one veterans wheeled or walked their way into a designated screening area at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“The veterans kept asking, ‘are they here for us?’” recalled TSA Officer Jeffrey Rodriguez.
This past month SJU hosted its first Honor Flight, a special flight that brings veterans from around the country to the nation’s capital. Rodriguez was one of the many TSA officers assisting the veterans and making the screening process stress free for the esteemed guests.
The event marked the first time veterans were able to take part in an Honor Flight out of the Caribbean to Washington, D.C. Transportation Security Manager Vimarie Sanchez and Rodriguez were the logistic coordinators for the day, overseeing the screening of more than 40 veterans, their guardians and additional staff.
SJU officers spent the morning talking and laughing with the veterans, listening to their battlefield stories and memories. Two men stood out amongst the group. Pushing a walker, a 101-year-old veteran fought in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and is a Purple Heart recipient. A second man, 97-year-old veteran, charmed with his tales and good humor.
The event was a memorable moment for the veterans who have given so much to their country. Members of the Army National Guard from Fort Buchanan saluted the attendees boarding the plane, and a pastor blessed the flight before takeoff.
A water salute ceremoniously ushered the plane to the runway as the veterans departed.
Assistant Federal Security Director Robert Cothran reflected on the incredible job his officers did in supporting and screening every person in attendance.
“I got to the airport at 2:30 a.m. and saw Sanchez sitting with the officers,” said Cothran. “They were all reviewing the standard operating procedures, asking questions and going over the plan for the day. It brought a smile to my face.”
The return flight was greeted by upbeat patriotic music playing from a band stationed outside the baggage claim area. A second honor guard greeted the returning travelers with salutes, while media waited to speak with the veterans about their time at the nation’s capital.
“As each person came off the plane they received a salute with cheers and clapping,” said Kimberly Carter, Deputy Assistant Federal Security Director for screening.
The veterans were emotional as they returned to the airport from their trip. Some confided in the officers about how years ago they didn’t receive a grand welcome back when they returned from Vietnam.
It was a stark difference to the scenes display that day. Other veterans had tears in their eyes, knowing people still cared about them and their service.
This Honor Flight is just the beginning for SJU. The program is in high demand; more than 300 applicants applied for the inaugural trip. Another flight is already in its planning stages.
Kimberlyn Pepe, Strategic Communications & Public Affairs