On Saturday, May 4, members of the Collier-Lee Honor Flight embarked on their first mission of 2019 from Southwest Florida International Airport to Washington D.C.

Established in 2013, Collier-Lee Honor Flight transports World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans to our nation’s capital for a day of visiting the memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices in our country’s defense. This trip’s memorial stops will include; the World War II Memorial, Air Force Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial Wall, and Arlington National Cemetery, where they will visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and attend the Changing of the Guard Ceremony.

In addition to the veterans, the organization also recruits volunteers to act as a personal guardian for each veteran on the trip.

Saturday’s mission marked the nineteenth time Collier-Lee Honor Flight has traveled to Washington D.C. and was the largest in the organization’s history, with 85 veterans and 85 guardians taking part, as well as members of the organization, “We are excited to have more veterans on this flight than ever,” said volunteer Richard Draffone prior to the flight. “Being a 100% volunteer organization, the logistics take a lot of work. However, we are committed to it, and our pay is the gratitude and impact it has on our local veterans.”

The large scale of this trip was made possible by Southwest Florida business Storm Smart, who is donating $80,000 to cover the cost of the latest mission. The organization received the check from Storm Smart Executive Chairman Brian Rist during the mission’s meet and greet held in Naples on April 27, “This donation and those like them have a great impact on getting veterans to D.C. It takes a huge burden off of our fundraising process. To have this size of a donation is huge for our organization,” says Draffone.

Rist, who became involved with the organization in 2017, says it was a trip similar to Saturday’s that left him wanting to become more engaged in the organization’s cause, “That day was one of the most inspirational and emotional days I have ever experienced. The great pride I saw in the eyes of those veterans was unforgettable. Coming home, I realized you could never give enough back or say thank you enough to those who have served our country. I determined right then that I wanted both myself and my company to take our involvement to a much higher level.”

Before that first trip, Rist and Storm Smart raised nearly $27,000 for the organization through donating a portion of the company’s June 2017 sales to Honor Flight. Wanting to take it to that next level, the company increased its donation of sales proceeds to two months and created its own golf event, Tee Off for Take Off, where all proceeds went to Honor Flight, “We knew we could only take it so far keeping fundraising in house. We wanted to get more of the community and local business leaders involved. That is where the golf event came in. It was something we had never done, so it was a little intimidating. However, by the time it was over, it was so successful and played such a major part in us reaching our $80,000 goal, that we decided to make it an annual event.”

In addition to funding the latest mission, Storm Smart was well represented on the flight as Rist, wife Kim, sister Diane, executive assistant Jaime Suanez, and her son Jordan and brother Joe will serve as guardians on the trip, making it a real family affair, “I am very fortunate to have two families; my home family and work family. These trips are such a wonderful experience; I wanted to share it with both families. Having so many ‘family members’ on this trip will make it an even greater experience.”

To see photos from this year’s Honor Flight festivities, click here.

For more information about Collier-Lee Honor Flight, call (239) 777-9295 or visit www.collierhonorflight.org.