CLEARWATER — They arrived at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport before 5 a.m. Tuesday, before the volunteers expected them.
The oldest was 98, the youngest 85, all World War II veterans eager to see memorials built in their honor.
Tuesday's Honor Flight, the 13th hosted by Honor Flight of West Central Florida, carried 80 veterans to Washington, D.C.
The organization sponsors round-trip, single-day tours of the nation's capital. Veterans visit the National Mall and see monuments on a chartered bus.
Each veteran is accompanied by a guardian — a volunteer who donates $400 and a full day to escort the aging veterans around the city.
Although the federal government shutdown has closed national monuments, the group received special permission to view all but the Iwo Jima Memorial.
"It's a big treat," said former Marine Corps nurse Dorothy Freeman.
Nearly 70 years ago, Freeman was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and later in Washington. On Tuesday, she waited in a wheelchair with her guardian, Chief Master Sgt. Karla Jordan.
Freeman has flown only four times before and worried about the risk. Besides that, she said, there had to be other veterans who had served longer than she had.
"I really don't feel like I deserve it," she said.
There are more than 100 Honor Flight chapters in the United States, but the local chapter serves the country's largest concentration of World War II veterans, who are dying at a rate of 600 per day.
"Our biggest enemy in Honor Flight is time," volunteer Dick Koch said.
Dick Hojem, 88, was still a teenager when he enlisted in the Navy. He was sent to the Pacific.
He worries that as fellow veterans age, they'll receive less recognition. "This war is sort of forgotten," Hojem said.
So the attention and organization of Tuesday morning surprised him. He'd previously visited Washington, D.C., but had never seen the World War II Memorial honoring his service.
The local Honor Flight chapter hopes to sponsor two more flights this year, pushing the total to more than 1,000 veterans since the group started two years ago. Each flight costs about $60,000, Koch said, and funding comes from donations, including money given by each guardian to cover expenses.
Once it works through a backlog of World War II veterans, the Honor Flight group eventually hopes to expand its mission to other veterans, in order of age, said group president Jim Haake.
Just before boarding, Freeman said she hopes her daughter, an Army veteran, will someday take the same flight. She thinks she'll need some convincing, she said.
"I'll track her down," Jordan offered. She pushed Freeman toward the gate as volunteers surrounded them and clapped.
Claire Wiseman can be reached at (727)-893-8804 or [email protected] On Twitter: @clairelwiseman