George McElvy is humble about his service during the Korean War. “I went and did what I was supposed to do like everybody else over there. I’m not one for a lot of glamour or rewards.”
Last April, though, George, 89, received special recognition when he visited Washington, D.C., through Honor Flight West Central Florida, a hub of the nonprofit Honor Flight Network. The organization provides all-expenses-paid trips for America’s veterans so they can visit the memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifices.
Each veteran is appointed a guardian to escort them, and Virginia Lesser, general manager of the Olive Garden restaurant in Inverness, FL, was paired with George, who lives in nearby Homosassa. “I was raised in a family of service,” Virginia said. “My great-grandfather was awarded a Purple Heart in World War 1, my grandfather served 22 years in the Army and my father spent time in the Air Force. We were taught to appreciate the men and women who fight for our freedoms.”
“Virginia was a superb guardian,” George said. “The best part of the day was probably the respect I received. The trip was a privilege, and it was humbling.”
He visited the National World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Air Force Memorial, Marine Corps War Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial, which had not been built the last time he visited the nation’s capital.
Every Veterans Day our country honors the courage and sacrifices of the men and women who have served our country and fought for our freedoms — like George did when he was drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers right out of college.
As part of the only engineering topographic unit in Korea, George traveled the country, noting the locations of supply and fuel dumps, which were always being moved. The soldiers would return to camp, print new maps and deliver them to Eighth Army headquarters for distribution throughout the war zone.
George said he doesn’t think he did anything exceptional in Korea in 1952-53 except that “I made it back out. I was fortunate because my unit stayed pretty much out of harm’s way.”
During his Honor Flight home, George and the other veterans experienced “mail call.” Just like in the military, they were called by their last names if they had received mail. This time, though, everyone got letters. Some were from strangers, others were from family members, but all of them thanked the veterans for their service.
“To see someone 89 years old sitting next to you and speechless because of these letters he’s reading from Boy Scouts and daughters and friends of 40 years is an overwhelming experience,” Virginia said. George read many of his 50 letters aloud to her, and she said a letter from his grandson moved him to tears.
For Virginia, becoming an Honor Flight guardian was a natural progression from the preflight lunches she has been serving Honor Flight veterans and guardians at her restaurant for a year. “It gives them a chance to get to know each other before the flight,” she said. “The Citrus County veterans know that their Honor Flight event includes coming in to our restaurant a week before the trip. Everyone enjoys it.” George, a regular Olive Garden guest, called the lunch “a great contribution.”
George served 33 months in the Army. After his honorable discharge as a first lieutenant, he returned to the University of Florida and earned an architecture degree. For 40 years, he ran a successful architecture firm in Tampa that built hospitals, schools and office buildings. He retired when he was 64.
Virginia said George’s energy inspired her. Although many veterans used wheelchairs at least part of the day, George wouldn’t even use the elevator at the Lincoln Memorial, climbing the 58 steps. “Why would I use the elevator?” he said. “I go to the gym and work out every other day. I don’t tear it up, but I’m there. Exercise is the key to success.
“I’m a big believer in serendipity,” George said. He met Jewel, his wife of 47 years, at a Christmas party and knew right away he wanted to marry her. “Great things have happened to me, and I’ve got the best bunch of friends who have made me who I am. I’ve had an extraordinary life, a storybook life.”