Las Vegas Sun

December 14, 2017

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Top secret mission: Surprises await WWII veterans on first Las Vegas Honor Flight


Courtesy Jon Yuspa

Retired Marine Capt. Chuck Tremain greets his granddaughter, who drove from New York to Washington, D.C, to surprise him. Tremain, who was aboard the first Honor Flight Nevada trip from Reno to Washington in October 2012, was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and died Feb. 20.

Click to enlarge photo

Retired Cmdr. Chuck Aikins, 92, is pushed by his daughter, a Southwest Airlines captain with 20 years of commercial flying experience. Aikins started flying for the Navy in 1938 and was a pilot on the USS Brooklyn during the invasions of North Africa and Sicily. He also was part of a fighter squad on USS Lexington in the Philippines and Western Pacific and flew more than 25,000 hours in his career.

On Friday, a troop of 35 World War II veterans will walk and wheel their way into McCarran International Airport for a final mission.

They are men and women who have been shot down in combat, earned Purple Hearts and courageously served their country. At 0730 hours, they will board a plane for Washington, D.C., and won’t have a clue what surprises organizer Jon Yuspa has waiting for them on the first-ever Las Vegas Honor Flight.

The veterans have never received their proper homecoming, nor asked for one, but by the time they return from their tour of the World War II memorial, Yuspa hopes to change that.

“One of the couple things you hear from them is they understand their lot in life. … They understand they’re in their final chapters,” Yuspa said. “But when they come back, they’ll tell you that you helped to rewrite their final chapter.”

Yuspa started the first Honor Flight branch in Nevada two years ago when he moved to Reno. He had previously volunteered to assist on the trips when he lived on the East Coast and was surprised a branch didn’t exist in Nevada.

The national nonprofit has been flying America’s veterans to see their war memorial since 2005. Most branches are stationed in the Midwest or East, where the trip can be completed in one day.

Yuspa realized a Nevada branch would mean more than triple the cost because it was a three-day trip, but he had seen the impact these trips had on other veterans and knew Nevadan veterans deserved the same.

Through donations from the Nevada Military Support Alliance, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and the community, he was able to make it a reality.

The first Honor Flight Nevada trip left from Reno in October 2012. Along the way, veterans received letters from local students, met with Sen. Dean Heller and were given VIP access to the Changing of the Guard.

By the end, many of them stayed up chatting about their experiences late into the night like children in a summer camp.

“Most of this generation has never talked to their family, they’re embarrassed to tell their kids, maybe they’ve killed people,” Yuspa said. “Then we’ll get phone calls or letters saying, 'Mom or Dad never talked about their service; now they won’t (stop).’ The seal has been cracked.”

Las Vegas Honor Flight leader Belinda Morse said the Las Vegas trip will include similar experiences, but she hinted at several other surprises waiting just for them. Many of the surprises were kept confidential, but she is excited to see the veterans’ reactions.

“We have several surprises along the way,” Morse said. “I just can’t wait to see their faces and see how much they’re going to enjoy it.”

At the end of the trip on Sunday, Morse said they plan to hold a big homecoming in the McCarran baggage claim. She urged the public to attend the welcome party at 1:40 p.m.

Yuspa said he already has received about 300 applications from interested veterans for future Honor Flight tours. He said his goal is to raise enough money for about 10 more missions to give these veterans the hero’s welcome he feels they deserve.

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