By: Jen Russon
Steve Rivera and George Paparelli didn’t always live within walking distance of each other. Long before the pair met, they served their country during the Vietnam War on opposite sides of the world.
In the early ’70s, Rivera, a chaplain’s assistant, was stationed in the U.S., helping with religious services and providing comfort to families of fallen soldiers.
In 1968, Paparelli was an infantryman who was serving in Vietnam.
Both in their 20s during the war, the two retired vets have been chosen for an Honor Flight a full generation later.
Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization created to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. Beverly Engler, director of the South Florida hub, said that while top priority is given to World War II survivors and those in fragile health, the hope is just as many able-bodied Vietnam vets apply, or are nominated for the honor as well.
With over 38,000 vets on the waiting list, Rivera said he feels lucky.
“About a year or so ago, I applied. I saw vets returning from their Honor Flight on Channel 4 News, which piqued my interest.”
He described the scene on TV — a welcoming party at the Miami airport, which appeared to number in the hundreds – everyone from civilians to Boy Scout troops cheering and waving.
Honor flights out of South Florida depart four times a year, from May through October. The one Rivera and Paparelli are participating in has drawn 182 people from West Palm, Monroe and Dade counties – most are vets, but over 60 people on the plane are registered as a guardian for those who cannot walk.
Rivera, from Coral Springs, convinced Paparelli of Tamarac to apply along with him. The two friends are booked as “walkers” on this trip. They will travel on a chartered Spirit Airlines plane on September 21 for a single day of touring Washington D.C. war memorials.
The vets will take four buses to the Korean, WWII, Iowa Jima, and Marine memorials, as well as get special seating at a ceremony in the Arlington Cemetery. But the real surprise said Engler, comes at the end of the journey, on the flight home.
“I’m keeping what that surprise is off the record,” Engler winked.
As for Paparelli, this trip to D.C. is his first one, and he said he might have a hard time looking at the names on the Vietnam Memorial wall.
“I knew some of those people,” he said somberly, adding, “but I’m glad we’re doing this. I want to be reminded of how much was sacrificed to be out there.”
To apply or nominate a veteran for an Honor Flight, visit the Honor Flight Network.