Mike Gasapo’s mission is to personally give all veterans in Central New York the trip of a lifetime in honor of their service to our country. As the Director of Operations for Honor Flight Syracuse, Mike works countless hours to coordinate the logistical feat of chartering a full plane with over 80 elderly veterans to Washington D.C. for a full day of recognition and remembrance. All of his efforts pay off when each veteran goes home knowing that past and future generations care about his or her service and sacrifices.
Coming from a military family, Mike knows the importance of honoring service men and women. Mike himself was an active duty Marine for 20 years, his father was a veteran of World War II, his wife is a Navy nurse, and his son served two tours in Iraq. A shining example of humility, Mike knows that many veterans don’t view themselves as heroes, and often won’t volunteer stories of their own service.
Honor Flight gets them talking.
“What I like most is that they start to reminisce. They are passing their oral history down to their guardians, who might be a family member who has never heard these precious memories.”
“A lot of people don’t know what happened in World War II. You can see the younger kids start asking questions like ‘What did you do as a gunner’s mate? What was it like? How many guys did you go with?’ and then they realize ‘Wow, my grandpa did some really cool stuff,’” Mike explained.
Mike chose to honor vets in this way in part to honor those who were left behind. “I’ve had some friends that didn’t come home from Iraq. So I feel an obligation to honor them. But really what we’re doing is honoring vets from World War II, Korea, and then Vietnam. They left to serve their country and made the world safe for democracy. The monuments that were built in their honor were dedicated 50 years after the war ended.
Many never got a chance to see these monuments, and now they’re in their 90s. This is a way for us to give them the opportunity to experience the gratitude that we have for them.”
At Honor Flight, every small gesture counts. There is absolutely no cost to any vet, and each experiences the day accompanied with a guardian and a team of nurses from a LeMoyne College. This effort is supported by a team of 250+ volunteers on the ground that ensures the Vets arrive and depart safely. During the trip, the Vets have mail call. Local high school students write letters to each vet. The letters are personalized and based on their biographies. These bios also help the Vets interact with each other as they discover what the other passengers on the trip did during their service. The arrival at Washington National Airport is also special. “Once we get to Reagan Airport, the welcome these vets get is like a ticker tape parade. We’ve had orchestras, swing dance troops, cheerleaders, singing groups.
When that gate opens up, the vets hear people are cheering. They all crack smiles and begin to realize, ‘Somebody cares about what I did,’”
The bonds that form and the emotions felt are unparalleled and indescribable. “We’ve had a couple instances where a vet from Central New York will meet another guy who was in their same unit back in 1944. We’re lucky that we’re able to make that connection and witness that relationship.”
Mike knows that the time to get these vets on an unforgettable flight is now. “We’ve had five flights, and taken over 300 vets. The problem is that the population is diminishing. Our goal is to take as many as we can to see the monuments that were built in their honor. We want them to know that yes, they did something important and we want them to have the opportunity to talk about it and pass down their history.”
Mike and Honor Flight Syracuse know that it’s never too late to give a hero’s thank you. “It’s a really good thing that happens here. It’s just truly the nicest thing I do.”