The first time Army veteran Vincent Curasi gazed up from his wheelchair at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., Christian Westerhoff was by his side.
Westerhoff, a senior at Southampton High School, had been assigned to Curasi, 88, of Wantagh, as a companion as they traveled to the nation’s capital on Sept. 28 with other World War II veterans from Long Island and their “guardians.”
The trip was arranged by Honor Flight Long Island, a regional hub for the Honor Flight Network, which provides all-expenses-paid trips to the D.C. memorials for veterans.
As the group flew from Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma to Baltimore and back, toured the memorials and attended a dinner gala, they were honored with various military salutes and even met former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Westerhoff said he noticed that every time someone stopped to thank one of the veterans for their service, they’d reply, “No, thank you.”
“They were so humble and so grateful,” he said.
Westerhoff said Curasi told him the last time he had been in Washington was for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
“I saw his eyes light up,” Westerhoff said as he recalled Curasi’s reaction to seeing the memorial for the first time. “It was probably the most inspirational day of my life.”
Westerhoff was so moved by the experience that he decided to create a new club at his school — the Mariner Patriot Club — with the intent of providing support for veterans and active-duty soldiers. He’s recruited nearly 100 students to get involved in the club’s upcoming projects, which will include drives to collect candy and care package items to send to troops serving overseas. They’ve also started writing letters to deployed soldiers and are planning to put on a show Nov. 19 for local veterans featuring student performances.
Westerhoff has the support of many Southampton faculty members, including his principal, Brian Zahn, who accompanied him on the trip and served as a “guardian” to World War II veteran Kenneth DeKemipp, 88, of Bay Shore. Zahn was able to secure the spots on the Honor Flight through the Suffolk County High School Principals Association, which received sponsorships from a local businessman to cover the costs, since the trip is only free to veterans. He said he’s working on sending two more students on an “Honor Flight” later in the school year.
“It was an incredible experience,” Zahn said.
Since its inception in 2005, the Honor Flight Network has flown more than 98,000 veterans to D.C.
“It gives them the ‘thank you’ they so long deserve,” said Chris Cosich, president of Honor Flight Long Island, which was created in 2007.
Although Westerhoff did learn some things about the war that day, he said the greatest lesson he took away from these members of “The Greatest Generation” was to “do things not for the glory, but because it’s the right thing to do.”