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Oldest woman veteran gets trip to D.C.

At 108, Lucy Coffey has one final wish, and she's going to get it, even though plans for her flight to Washington, D.C., had to be changed.

The nation's oldest woman veteran will fly from San Antonio to Washington on an American Airlines flight Friday, tour the nation's monuments the next day and then go to the White House.

No one knows for sure, but it is possible that Coffey, a longtime San Antonian who holds two Bronze Stars for her service in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, will meet President Barack Obama.

"I think everybody was determined to make this happen for her, so we're really excited for her," said Bexar County Veterans Service Officer Queta Marquez.

Coffey's journey to the nation's capital has come in fits and starts, and at one time didn't look like it would happen at all. That it is moving forward is a credit to a small group of people who wouldn't give up, and American Airlines, which is providing two free first-class, round-trip tickets.

Those close to Coffey say they worried for her health. Frail and still recovering from a stroke, she's on oxygen and tires easily. She has good days and bad ones. Some doubted that Coffey had the stamina to make the trip aboard a commercial airline.

A flight out of Austin was scratched because it involved driving time from San Antonio.

An Austin company, Charlie Bravo Aviation, offered to set up a charter flight out of San Antonio but later backed out. Founder and CEO René Banglesdorf said the firm, which sells aircraft, had concerns about Federal Aviation Administration rules.

"There were some legal implications that we had not realized before we scheduled the flight, and once we started talking about it more deeply with the people who would be volunteering to pay for part of the flight, we realized that we could all be violating FAA regulations," she said.

The cost of doing other charter flights was exorbitant.

Still, those setbacks didn't faze Marquez, a retired Marine Corps captain, and a fellow Marine.

"When it comes to honoring these World War II veterans, I get kind of relentless," said retired Marine Gunnery Sgt. Allen Bergeron, 53, veterans' officer for the city of Austin. "I'm a retired Marine, and they say our nicknames are devil dogs, and the devil dog is a nickname the Germans gave us in World War II, and when we get something in our teeth, we don't let go."

Bergeron, who is also chairman of Honor Flight Austin, and Marquez, a representative of Honor Flight San Antonio de Valero, worked the phones.

Things went back and forth, but a Texas General Land Office veterans' liaison official contacted Americans Airlines, and a deal was reached.

Final medical approval is pending, but if that goes through as expected, Coffey's Lone Eagle Honor Flight will include a visit to the Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. It marks the contributions of 2.5 million women who served in the WAAC during World War II and was on her "bucket list."

For Marquez, a veteran of Afghanistan, it would be a happy ending for Coffey, whom she credited with opening doors for millions of women who have served in uniform.

"What matters is honoring her, just like we want to honor all of our veterans, but she's definitely a special case," Marquez said.

sigc@express-news.net

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