By Conrad Dudderar
A Vietnam veteran from Yukon recently had a trip-of-a-lifetime on an Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight.
Lt. Col. (ret.) Rick Cacini gave a presentation about his experience during the Yukon Rotary Club’s weekly lunch meeting Oct. 17 at Primo’s Italian restaurant.
Cacini was among 65 Oklahoma military veterans who traveled Oct. 3 to Washington, D.C. for the Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight’s ninth mission.
These veterans were recognized for their selfless service to help ensure the freedoms that U.S. citizens enjoy today.
The flight featured four World War II veterans – with the oldest being 99 years young. There also were 14 Korean War veterans and 47 Vietnam War veterans.
Honorees served in the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marines.
“This was an honor for me,” Cacini told Yukon Rotary Club members. “It was just fantastic.”
The Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight, a 501c3 non-profit organization, takes World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the memorials built for their service and sacrifices.
Two flights are operated each year – each costing around $130,000.
The cost of these trips is covered by donations, corporate sponsors, grants, and fundraisers. All funds raised are used for the flights.
Without these honor flights, most U.S. military veterans would never be able to experience this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Yukon’s Cacini thought he would be going on this month’s flight as a guardian – a volunteer who accompanies an honored veteran to D.C.
Instead, he was among Oklahoma military heroes nominated as an honoree.
“To be selected was a real shocker,” said Cacini, founder and curator of the Yukon Veteran Museum.
A retired federal officer, Cacini had already been to D.C. many times. He retired after 40 years in the U.S. Arny and 24 years in the U.S. Air Force.
Now in his ‘70s, Cacini said he was one of the youngest veterans on the recent trip – with most in their ‘80s and ‘90s.
Yukon’s Jim Morsches, a Vietnam veteran who attends church with Cacini, was Cacini’s guardian for the Honor Flight experience.
Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight honorees wear red shirts and must sit in a wheelchair. The guardians wear blue shirts and push the wheelchairs.
The flight from Tulsa to Washington, D.C. was on an American Airlines plane, which was decorated in red, white and blue.
Cacini shared with Yukon Rotary Club members more than 150 photos of his Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight journey.
Highlights were the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The first stop was Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery, where some 400,000 U.S. military service members are buried in its 639 acres.
“When you look at all the gravesites, you ask yourself, ‘How long have we’ve been fighting for our freedom?” Cacini said.
Participants visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where they watched the Changing of the Guard.
This tomb is an historic funerary monument dedicated to deceased U.S. service members whose remains have not been identified.
The Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight group stopped at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, taking photos in front of a statue of troops raising the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima during WWII.
“It’s a beautiful monument,” Cacini said.
The Yukon veteran shared photos of other Washington, D.C. landmarks, such as the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall, The Pentagon, the Washington Monument, and new U.S. Air Force Memorial.
It was a long day for the Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight members, who returned to the Tulsa Airport about 10 p.m. to a hero’s greeting.
“There were 300 to 400 people welcoming us back that night,” Cacini shared. “A band was playing. Some of the guys were crying. It was emotional.”
Near the end of his talk to fellow Yukon Rotarians, Cacini reflected fondly on his Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight experience.
“You have to be on it to really feel it,” he explained.
Cacini already has nominated another Rotarian and local veteran, Charles Schwarz, for a future honor flight. Cacini also has offered his services as a guardian.
Yukon Rotary Club member Betty Corn told Cacini that the club was “really proud of you.”
The late Jim Seikel had shared his perspective with the club after participating in an honor flight, Corn added.
HONOR FLIGHT HISTORY
The Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight organization coordinates these honor flights from Oklahoma to Washington, D.C.
It is part of the Honor Flight Network, which started in May 2005 to take WWII veterans to D.C. As their numbers dwindled, Korea and Vietnam veterans were added.
Friends Earl Morse and Jeff Miller, from Springfield, Ohio, had spoken with a few WWII veterans about going to Washington, D.C. to see the WWII Memorial after it was completed in 2004.
Most of the veterans told them they would not be able to go see it due to cost, transportation or health issues.
Morse and Miller put their heads together and recruited private pilots to volunteer their time and planes.
In 2005, six small planes flew 12 WWII veterans to D.C. – at no cost to them.
Today, the Honor Flight Network has some 129 hubs in 44 states.
To date, Honor Flight has brought more than 250,000 veterans to Washington, D.C.
The Oklahoma Warriors Honor Flight started taking veterans to D.C. in fall 2019. Flights are in April and October.
More than 650 Oklahoma veterans have enjoyed a free trip of a lifetime through the Oklahoma Warriors’ program, according to hub director Lana Hurt.
Some 250 more veterans are on the Oklahoma Warriors’ Honor Flight waiting list.
To learn more or to contribute to the program, visit www.oklahomawarriors.org.