Honor Flight Kern County supporters astounded by $100,000 donation

By STEVEN MAYER | The Bakersfield Californian | Published: December 6, 2019

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — When does a one and five zeros cause an audience to erupt in cheers and applause?

When there's a dollar sign attached.

That's what happened at Honor Flight Kern County's monthly breakfast event held Thursday at the downtown Bakersfield Elks Lodge when it was announced that Eagle Mountain Casino is donating $100,000 to the local nonprofit.

"I'm in a state of shock," said Lili Marsh, founder of the all-volunteer organization dedicated to flying aging veterans to the nation's capital to visit the city's memorials and monuments.

"When the call came in, I thought it was a joke," she said.

What it means is flights for an estimated 70 or more veterans into 2020, and maybe even 2021, will be funded by the influx of cash.

Matthew Mingrone, general manager of Eagle Mountain Casino, operated in the Porterville area by the Tule River Indian Tribe, said the casino began an incentive program with its customers about eight weeks ago — and the customers really came through.

"It was an outpouring by our team and our guests," Mingrone said.

The organization has two honor flights scheduled next spring. The first, carrying 100 Vietnam veterans, departs in early April, and the second, carrying World War II vets, is slated for late April.

Vietnam veteran Robert Sanchez was there Thursday with his wife of 50 years, Mary Ann Sanchez, and the couple's grandson, 4-year-old Vincent Sanchez.

The Army veteran said he was happy to hear of the casino's donation because he knows how much it meant to him when he went on his own honor flight.

"It was a sad experience and at the same time exhilarating," Sanchez recalled of the trip to Washington, D.C., and especially his visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall

Sanchez's brother, Jose Angel Sanchez, was killed in Vietnam on June 3, 1971, not long after Sanchez returned home from his own tour of duty. Jose was not yet 21 when he was killed.

"I was at Fort Hood, Texas when I was notified," Robert Sanchez remembered. "We were both infantry. I knew what he had been going through and what might have happened."

Years later, thanks to the many donors and volunteers who support Honor Flight, Sanchez found himself at the Vietnam Memorial Wall searching for his brother's name etched in stone.

He found it. He can still see it in his mind's eye.

"I was able to get an imprint of his name," Sanchez said. "And I left a little memento for him."

It's those sorts of healing experiences that Honor Flight Kern County has made possible for thousands of veterans.

It was on Honor Flight's maiden voyage in 2012, that more than 20 World War II veterans from Bakersfield and nearby communities traveled to Washington, D.C., to commemorate, even to consecrate, a moment in American history when they and millions like them came together to save civilization from those bent on its destruction.

For these aging warriors, it was a journey not just of distance and miles, but of time and memory.

"It brings me closure," Navy veteran James Lee told a Californian reporter who was also on that trip, which included a visit to Arlington National Cemetery.

Lee, who served aboard a minesweeper in the Pacific during World War II, looked around at the rows of bleached-white headstones at Arlington, and held his hand to his chest.

So many dead, he said in the quiet of the historic cemetery. "I didn't realize it was so large."

Those are the moments Marsh wants Kern's veterans to experience. Everywhere they go on these flights, people spontaneously stop to shake their hands and say, "Thank you for your service."

Teenage girls and their mothers, tattooed bikers, younger veterans, people of all ages and races are drawn to them as if each were a medal winner, a hero, a celebrity.

On Thursday, other fundraisers were announced as well. Students at Tehachapi High School raised more than $2,000. Another check for $1,500 came in.

These donations are just as important as the bigger gifts from corporations and businesses. They represent everyday people, young and old in the larger community of Kern County who are digging deep to support this effort.

And it's just possible Eagle Mountain Casino could make this an annual donation.

"I think we're creating a tradition," said Eagle Mountain's Mingrone.

Or at least continuing one.

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