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WNY veterans honored as Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight celebrates first trip in two years

Mission 10 was a milestone and a success
Salutes and smiles for local veterans on a trip to our nation's capital
Posted at 1:02 PM, Nov 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-09 07:19:11-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Mission 10 for the Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight was a milestone for the organization and a miracle for some 35 veterans.

“It just takes my breath away,” said Shirley Chiodo, a U.S. Air Force Veteran from North Tonawanda.

Chiodo laughed, joked and smiled throughout most of the day as she lived out a dream of visiting our nation's capital. The icing on the cake: it was her 86th birthday.

She tried to get on the Honor Flight two years ago, but didn't make the cut. She spent the next 24 months wondering if she'd ever get another chance. On October 9, she did.

Things began dark and early as Chiodo and 34 other local veterans and their guardians boarded a bus and made their way to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, with a send off from their loved ones.

Mission 10 was off to a start at 3am with an escort from local police agencies.

Veterans and their guardians making memories in the airport as the day of honor begins
Veterans and their guardians making memories in the airport as the day of honor begins

From the minute they arrived at gate 15, the party began. Flags from each military branch lined the walls. Decorations of stars and stripes lined the ceilings.

What would normally be a quiet morning for airport staff, was one full of cheers and singing as this group celebrated the day ahead.

"Its been two years almost to the day since we last flew, so God bless you, God bless our country and let's keep patriotism going," said Tom Petrie, Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight President to a round of applause at the gate.

Petrie led the group in saying the pledge of allegiance, followed by a happy birthday wish for Chiodo.

Veteran Shirley Chiodo, 86, celebrates her birthday with a trip to D.C.
Veteran Shirley Chiodo, 86, celebrates her birthday with a trip to D.C.

“I feel honored and special," said Chiodo.

Smiles stamped on the faces of these heroes, before even getting on the plane.

The Annapolis Town Crier greeted the veterans with a loud bell ring, a thank you and a handshake at the gate as they arrived at BWI Airport.

It’s a day that’s been planned for months—but for the veterans, it held some unexpected pleasures. The spotlight was on, passengers couldn't help but show their appreciation with standing ovations, photo-taking and the like.

Mike Mineo of Williamsville was shocked to see a familiar face in Baltimore, his nephew who works for Southwest Airlines surprised him at the gate. From hugs and smiles at the airport to the bus that took the veterans on a D.C. tour.

Mineo was most excited to get to see the Iwo Jima statue.

"Semper Fi!" shouts Mike Mineo of Williamsville at the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial
"Semper Fi!" shouts Mike Mineo of Williamsville at the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial

“I’m glad to be home. A lot of men never made it home," said Mineo, who served in the United States Marine Corps from 1952 to 1955. "And I hope I did my part, you know?"

Mineo and his fellow servicemen and women visited memorials for the Korean war, Vietnam war and World War II, where veterans well into their 90s got to visit D.C., some of them for the first time.

A stop at the Women’s Memorial was what birthday girl Shirley Chiodo was waiting for. Along with Edie Rebrovich, she was one of two women on the trip, which reminded her of her days in the Air Force.

"There was about 60 of us [women] at the time. I was a morning report clerk. You sit at a desk and you write down, who leaves, who comes, who goes, that was my job to do," said Chiodo.

She joined as soon as she turned 18 and she's most proud of serving her country. Before this trip, Chiodo had never really been recognized as a hero for her service. At the Women's Memorial, she got her moment to shine.

"This whole tour is unbelievable, people have been so nice," said Chiodo.

This day of honor was a long one. One with little sleep, few breaks and a lot of moving around for veterans in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Not a single person complained.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing delays and raising questions since 2020, this trip had a new feeling.

"It brought new things to the forefront, new emotions, it re-energized all of us. It’s such a great feeling to be flying again," said Petrie.

Another surprise this year was the wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery where they honored three veterans from WWII, Vietnam and Korean wars and WWII. An honor they don’t always get to do on honor flights.

WNY Veterans from World War II, Vietnam and Korean Wars participate in a wreath-laying ceremony
WNY Veterans from World War II, Vietnam and Korean Wars participate in a wreath-laying ceremony

These three stood with their hands on their hearts as soldiers laid the wreath with the words "Buffalo Niagara Honor Flight" at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.

One of those three veterans is Denny Wittmeyer of Boston.

"What more could I ask for. Just a terrific honor for me," said Wittmeyer.

People young and old shook his hand throughout the day, many calling him a hero— a term he's not fond of.

“I’m no hero. I just did a job that I had to do, that’s all. I went to Vietnam, I did my job, then I come home," said Wittmeyer.

Wittmeyer says being honored like this is different for a Vietnam war veteran.

"You didn’t tell anybody you were a Vietnam veteran, I had to change my uniform and put on civilian clothes. You’re lower than dirt when you come home from Vietnam," said Wittmeyer.

Mission 10 also allowed him to pursue a mission of his own—to go visit two of his buddies.

Wittmeyer slowly walked down the wall of names at the Vietnam War Memorial, looking for Frank Ragusa and Andrew Shimp. It was difficult to come up with anything other than tears once he found them.

"Two of your buddies got killed. It was tough," said Wittmeyer.

Denny Wittmeyer of Boston finds the names of two of his buddies at the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C.
Denny Wittmeyer of Boston finds the names of two of his buddies at the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C.

Shimp only had 12 days left before returning home when he was killed, he recalled.

Though there were difficult moments, the feeling on forefront for Wittmeyer was gratitude.

"Just absolutely amazing. To coordinate all this and do what they did for us veterans today is just unbelievable," he explained.

The journey back home was much like on the way in, standing ovations and words of thanks from passers by. The entire crowd joined in the singing of "God Bless America" as the honor flight got ready to board.

Around 10pm, The Greater Buffalo Firefighters Pipes and Drums lead the way out of the airport and onto the shuttle back home.

Loved ones met them with signs, hugs and kisses. As mission 10 came to a close, they shared what they saw, with smiles warming our hearts and lighting up the faces of these humble heroes.