Veterans depart from JFK for relaxing weekend in Vegas

Army Sgt. Major Claudette Benning (c.) prepares to board an airplane from JFK Airport to Las Vegas as part of a Veterans Day initiative sponsored by American Airlines and other companies. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Connor Adams Sheets

About 150 wounded veterans left for Sin City from John F. Kennedy International Airport last Thursday for a weekend of relaxation, entertainment and getting away from it all.

The event, hosted and paid for by American Airlines, the Sands Foundation and a number of other sponsors, was billed as a way for the business sponsors to give back to the wounded warriors of the U.S. military.

“It’s overwhelming, it’s emotional, we’re thankful. For the vets, for you guys to take the time to take us on this trip, thank you so much, all we can do is cry,” said 28-year U.S. Army veteran Sgt. Major Claudette Benning, who wore a neck brace from a heavy-lifting injury as she prepared to board the plane to Las Vegas. “Soldiers sacrifice themselves. It’s not about ourselves, it’s about the safety of our country and our children and grandchildren. We want to thank everybody who put it together.”

The soldiers, who hailed from bases across the nation, were flown free by American Airlines, then treated to three nights at Las Vegas Sands’ Venetian Resort Hotel Casino and an itinerary packed with performances, lectures and other fun offerings.

After a series of speeches, the veterans ate lunch, mingled with civilians and boarded Flagship Independence, a Boeing 767 airplane with a yellow veterans’ ribbon painted behind the American Airlines “AA” crest on its tail.

As the aircraft taxied to the runway, the pilot opened the front window of the cockpit and flew an American flag for all observers to see. About 60 percent of American Airlines pilots are veterans or active-duty military, according to Art Torno, American Airlines vice president for New York.

The plane passed between two fire trucks, which saluted its brave passengers by opening two water cannons, raining glistening water down on the jet minutes before it took off, headed for the sands of Nevada.

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) attended the fete before liftoff, bringing tears to some of the assembled warriors’ eyes with his rousing words of gratitude and humility in the face of their sacrifice and his pledges to do better by them.

“We need to make sure we do all we can for them when they get home. We need to do more for these brave men and women,” he said before his speech, during which he told the veterans, “I salute you from the bottom of my heart. I say thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. But for you we couldn’t stand here with all the freedoms that we have today.”

The send-off was a joyous affair, and representatives from the sponsoring companies took the time to express their appreciation of the nation’s armed forces.

“These kids go off to war and they give up so much of their lives and often they come back changed, so this is our way of thanking them,” Torno said.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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