Cheering crowds and waving flags thrill Honor Flight veteran

Gene Schneider enjoyed a full and perfect day touring D.C.'s memorials — then the best thing of all happened

  • Gene Schneider, pictured at the Milford Diner, teared up as he described the moving reception he and other veterans received everywhere they went (Photo by Anya Tikka)

  • Gene Schneider really enjoyed meeting one-time presidential candidate Senator Bob Dole: "Just the fact he shook my hand warmly — not that I was just another veteran on the flight.” (Photo provided)

  • Gene Schneider with Diane Guendel, his traveling companion, at the World War II Memorial. (Photo provided)

  • Gene Schneider tours monuments in the nation's Capital (Photo provided)

  • Gene Schneider made friends on the Honor Flight (Photo provided)

By Anya Tikka

— Seventy-two years after World War II ended, veteran Gene Schneider, now 89, had a treat of a lifetime. He was flown to Washington, D.C., by the Hudson Valley Honor Flight, joining 90 other veterans, four from the Milford area, on Saturday, April 8.

The Milford resident traveled with his guardian, Diane Guendel, a recently retired nurse whose husband is also a veteran. Schneider had high praise for his traveling companion, who "pushed my wheelchair when I couldn’t walk, and walked with me when I could."

Schneider met the couple by chance at a recent Democratic Club meeting. At first, he wasn’t going to go even after winning the trip because his daughter, Debbie, doesn’t like flying. But the Honor Flight makes sure its veterans are well cared for.

Every veteran on the flight had his own guardian, volunteers who use their own resources to accompany the veterans. Most of the veterans on this month's flight were World War II veterans like Schneider, but the organization recently started taking Korean War vets too, and is considering taking Vietnam vets in near future. The flight is free to the veterans. It is financed by donations and staffed by volunteers.

Talking about the trip brought tears to Schneider’s eyes.

“Everywhere we went, we had hundreds of people greet us with flags and cheers," he said.

There were bands playing too. But the real highlight for Schneider was meeting one-time presidential candidate Senator Bob Dole.

“It was everything to me," he said. "Just the fact he shook my hand warmly — not that I was just another veteran on the flight.”

'It beats anything'The veterans met up in the ShopRite parking lot in Montgomery, and boarded five or six buses that took them to Stewart International Airport in Newburgh. After landing at Reagan National Airport, the group struck out for the famous monuments, including Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Korean War and Vietnam War memorials.

Everywhere the veterans went, they were greeted with more crowds, more cheers, more music.

The bus stopped in front of the United States Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial) so that the vets could admire it while remaining seated. The group stopped for dinner at a Holiday Inn before getting back on the plane.

Schneider loved the return flight — which included an old-fashioned mail call, complete with letters and cards for the vets written by family members and friends — and landing back in Stewart Airport.

Schneider was one of last to exit the airplane. As he came out, hundreds of people were there again to greet him with cheers and waving flags. The stewardesses and the captain kissed him.

But the best was yet to come.

“The biggest shock was one of my best friends who stood there for three hours to meet me,” Schneider said, tearing up again.

Schneider lost his wife of 67 years two and half years ago. Seeing his friend, at the end of a long and perfect day, was just what he needed.

“It beats anything that ever happened to me, except my wedding,” he said.

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