|Collier County Sheriff's Office Deputy Yvette Gonzales, left, and her sister Cpl. Erika Gonzales will take part in the first all-female Honor Flight out of Collier County on Saturday. Submitted photo.|
When two Collier County Sheriff’s Office deputies were approached to take part in Collier County’s first ever all-female Honor Flight they jumped at the chance.
“I couldn’t say yes quick enough,” said Cpl. Erika Gonzales, 32. “I thought it was an amazing opportunity. I’m really excited to do this.”
She and her sister Deputy Yvette Gonzales will join 64 fellow female military veterans ranging in age from 24 to 95 on the “Lady Hero Flight” out of Naples Municipal Airport on June 11.
The sisters, both U.S. Air Force veterans, will join women representing all branches of the military for a one-day trip to the nation’s capital where they will visit Arlington National Cemetery to see the Changing of the Guard, the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial and the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
This will be Collier County Honor Flight’s first flight dedicated to female veterans since the nonprofit group formed in 2013, said Dr. Debi Lux, who founded the group with her husband Sean Lux. It will also be the first flight with Elite Airways, which recently began serving the Naples area.
The nonprofit’s mission is to transport Collier County veterans to Washington, D.C., at no cost to them to visit those memorials dedicated to honor their service and sacrifices. Most of the veterans have never set foot near these memorials.
“We have taken 567 veterans so far on honor flights,’’ said Dr. Lux, noting the majority have been male veterans from World War II.
Dr. Lux, a Navy veteran, said the idea behind the “Lady Hero Flight” was simply to recognize and thank women veterans for their service.
The trip will also mark the first time seats on a local Honor Flight have been opened to younger veterans.
“When I was asked to participate I felt honored and privileged,” said Deputy Yvette Gonzales, 26. “It never occurred to me that these brave men and women from our greatest generation had never seen their monuments, so for me to have any role in making that happen is just humbling.”
To be able to share the experience with women who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam makes the trip all the more special, the sisters agreed.
“These women broke the glass ceiling,” Deputy Yvette Gonzales said. “The challenges they must have faced and the bravery it took to serve when it was not common. It’s hard to imagine. If it weren’t for them, I can’t imagine how different things would be.”
Cpl. Erika Gonzales works in the Housing Section at the Naples Jail Center and is currently attending the training academy to cross over to a certified law enforcement officer. Deputy Yvette Gonzales worked as a jail technician and is currently training to become a Correctional officer.
On a typical honor flight, each veteran is matched with a guardian, usually a non-veteran, who stays by their side the entire trip. The “Lady Hero Flight” is unique in that the entire flight is made up of veterans. Instead of a guardian, each woman will be paired with a fellow veteran to promote camaraderie on the flight.
On Saturday the sisters met the women they will be paired up with along with the other veterans who will be joining them on the flight during a meet-and-greet at Grace Lutheran Church, 860 Banyan Blvd. in Naples.
Cpl. Erika Gonzales will share the experience with Army veteran Cindy Beth Latsko, 49, while Deputy Yvette Gonzales will be joined by Air Force veteran Betty Jean Parkhill, 60.
Both sisters said they are looking forward to hearing the other women’s stories. And to see the faces of the most senior veterans when they get to the monuments.
The flight will depart the Naples airport at 8 a.m. and return around 7:30 p.m. Past honor flight homecomings have drawn large crowds at the airport with flags and signs. More than 1,000 family members and local service members, law enforcement and community well-wishers are expected to welcome the women home.
“The neatest thing about this is everybody comes away feeling good,” Dr. Lux said.