NEW PORT RICHEY — Better late than never.
That’s the sentiment shared by William Halt, a Vietnam War veteran who was beaming as he slowly walked through a cheering, flag-waving, cowbell-ringing patriotic crowd gathered outside Spartan Manor on Jan. 12.
“I never had a homecoming anything like this,” the New Port Richey resident said. “We didn’t get a single thing. So, this feels just great. It’s magnificent.”
He was among dozens of war veterans from Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties who had just experienced the two-hour Honor Flight at Home program, geared toward those who are unable to fly to Washington, D.C., and participate in a traditional Honor Flight.
Before receiving a hero’s greeting by hundreds of appreciative residents who lined up along Massachusetts Avenue, the veterans attended a virtual presentation that mirrored what they would have experienced had they gone to the nation’s capital and toured assorted memorials, monuments and landmarks.
“What they get is very similar to what it’s like to be there. They do a good job of matching the intensity,” Bob Elkin, president of the local Santa’s Drill Team, said as he and his red-white-and-blue-clad and white-bearded members waited for the veterans to come out. His group, made up mostly of veterans, sup-ports veterans by delivering patriotic performances at a variety of events.
The New Port Richey resident and Air Force veteran estimated that he’s been part of 30 Honor Flight at Home outings. In 2013, Elkin finally got his chance to attend an actual Honor Flight as a guardian for a fellow veteran.
“These are all tough old boys, but I’ll be darned if you don’t see some tears,” he said. “It’s that powerful.”
The team was part of the program and then was the first in line to greet the veterans, followed by other groups such as New Port Richey Boy Scout troops 8 and 24, and members of the Fire Iron Motorcycle Club.
First out was Mel Price, a New Port Richey resident who served in both Korea and Vietnam. He made a point to stop and hug a baby, as if he was running for office, as everyone cheered him on.
“This is so great,” he said as pats on the back came with his every step.
Trinity’s Mike Weinert was among those in the receiving line, holding a “never forget” sign. Last year, while in Washington, D.C., on business, he happened to be at the airport when an Honor Flight landed, and all the hoopla ensued.
“I was just so inspired. It was just great to be able to see that,” Weinert, a Coast Guard veteran, said. “So, when I heard about this happening here, I had to be here. I know a lot of the Vietnam guys never got a welcome home, so I wanted to make sure they did today.”
That’s also what motivated Port Richey resident John Knight and his family to participate. He, his wife Samantha Dunham, and their four young children set up chairs a few blocks down the street to offer a final flag-waving sendoff as the veterans left the conference center.
“I just appreciate everything they’ve done and everything they’ve been through,” Knight said. “I always make sure to show them respect.
“My father is a Vietnam vet and he was spit on when he returned. They deserve better and that’s why we’re here.”
George England, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Palm Harbor, was also moved by the tribute.
“What a difference,” he said of how he felt Saturday in comparison to his initial return home. “This feels great. I’m very emotional.”
Veterans of other wars also were in attendance, and one of them received an especially loud reception as he walked out. It belonged to Charles Grimes, a Hudson resident who’s 102 years old and served in World War II.
“Wow,” he said as everyone reached out to touch him and thank him.
Dominick Dantuono, a Spring Hill resident who fought in Korea, was next to come out.
“This is fantastic,” he said. “This just couldn’t be better.”
Then, another roar came when another World War II veteran made his way down the line.
“This is so good,” 92-year-old Nurlin Reeve, also a Hudson resident, said. “It means a lot.”
Those in the crowd were equally moved.
“My Dad’s a Vietnam veteran, so coming from a military family this means a lot to me as well,” said Sandy May, a New Port Richey resident who was near the end of the receiving line and recording the event. “I brought my teenage son here to see how much this all means. We are all so blessed to have these dedicated people in our lives.”