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2 Young Ohio Girls Raise $20,000 for Veterans’ ‘Honor Flights’ to Washington

The program runs in 125 communities in 42 states, transporting former military personnel to Washington to honor their service to America.

Raya Ziegler (L) and her sister Tessa (R) pose with Navy Veteran Mike Jostworth at an Honor Flight homecoming at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport on May 22, 2024. (Courtesy of Rachel Ziegler)

By Janice Hisle


CINCINNATI, Ohio—A pair of patriotic little girls and their mother beamed as they shared how—and why—they raised more than $20,000 for a program that benefits military veterans in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.

Tessa Ziegler, 12, and her sister, Raya, 7, generated those funds for Honor Flight Tri-State via yard sales, raffles, and donation buckets at events near their home outside Cincinnati, Ohio.

Honor Flight, which operates nationwide, provides free trips for veterans to visit the nation’s capital. The nonprofit program honors veterans’ service to America, connects them with fellow service members, and escorts them to military memorials. When confronting the graves and names of buddies who gave their lives, many of the veterans shed tears and recount long-suppressed personal stories.

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As the nation’s Independence Day holiday approached, the Ziegler sisters and their mother, Rachel, told The Epoch Times it’s important to honor veterans and America year-round, not just on patriotic holidays.

They support Honor Flight because they know they are touching the lives of veterans who have served America, Ms. Ziegler said. The money they raised has covered Honor Flights for 34 veterans, an expericnce that sometimes has been called “the trip of a lifetime.”

The girls, whose great-grandfather was a veteran, began their involvement with Honor Flight more than six years ago.

A friend of Ms. Ziegler invited her and her daughters to a welcome-home celebration for veterans who had returned to the Cincinnati-area airport after a day trip to Washington.

“We went to our first Honor Flight, and we really liked it,” Tessa said, “and then we just wanted to get more involved with it.”

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The veterans’ homecoming ceremony was heartwarming and steeped in patriotism, Ms. Ziegler said.

Hundreds of people wearing red, white, and blue greeted the veterans at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron, Kentucky.

Afterward, Ms. Ziegler happened to be holding a yard sale. Instead of keeping the proceeds, “we decided to donate the money to Honor Flight,” she said. “And it just built from there.”

Since then, she and her girls have attended every Honor Flight “homecoming” at the Cincinnati-area airport; typically, four each year.

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On one such occasion, when Raya was just 3, a veteran handed her a red rose. She still remembers that, she said, and remembers responding: “Thank you for your service.”

Ms. Ziegler cherishes a photo capturing that moment. In a post on social media, words above the picture read: “No hippie spit on this Vietnam veteran when he came home this time.” Vietnam veterans sometimes were disrespected when they returned from fighting a war that many Americans did not support.

Raya said interacting with the veterans has taught her that “freedom isn’t free.”

Honor Flight originated in Dayton, Ohio, in 2004, and has expanded to 125 “hubs” in 42 states, said Cheryl Popp, chair of the Tri-State group based in Cincinnati.

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Nationally, 275,000 servicemembers have participated, and 7,500 of them have flown from the Cincinnati location, Ms. Popp told The Epoch Times.

She confirmed that the Ziegler sisters have raised about $20,000 during the five years they’ve been fundraising for Honor Flight. For much of that time, an anonymous donor has been matching the amount that the girls contribute.

The sisters are always a hit with the veterans, Ms. Popp said, because they sweetly and enthusiastically greet each veteran. She said their reputation precedes them, because many of the veterans will ask: “Where are the girls?”

The siblings ensure each Honor Flight participant receives a handwritten letter, complete with patriotic artwork. They also give each veteran a handshake, hug, or a peck on the cheek. In response to those gestures, many of the veterans get teary-eyed, the girls said.

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The Ziegler sisters “were like pre-kindergarten when they started,” Ms. Popp said, adding, “they’re just darling.” They typically wear clothing in patriotic colors, often evocative of bygone eras that these veterans remember from their heyday, she said.

The program is free of charge for veterans who are at least age 65 and served stateside or overseas during World War II, the Korean War, or Vietnam War, the group’s website says.

A ‘Hero’s Welcome’

Jay Ratliff, a Cincinnati area businessman who financially supports the program and knows Ms. Ziegler and her daughters, said, “I’m a big fan of theirs. I’m constantly telling the girls how proud I am of them and how much it means for me to see them show the veterans appreciation.”

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Expressions of gratitude for the veterans at these meetings is “unbelievable,” he said, adding that they receive the “hero’s welcome” that so many of them had been denied in the past.

Several years ago, Mr. Ratliff accompanied his father, Willis, a veteran, on an Honor Flight. He was eligible even though he didn’t serve combat duty, Mr. Ratliff said.

Now his father is 94 and suffers from dementia, so he does not remember his Honor Flight trip anymore.

“But I do,” Mr. Ratliff said. “And it was one of the best days I’ve ever spent with my dad.”

Peter Bronson, who co-wrote two books about Honor Flight veterans with Ms. Popp, told The Epoch Times: “I’ve never seen another organization that inspires more gratitude, patriotism, and respect.”

“When Honor Flight veterans ask to be buried in their Honor Flight T-shirts, that tells you all you need to know about the wonderful experience of being on an Honor Flight.”


Jay Ratliff (R) and his father, military veteran Willis Ratliff, went on an Honor Flight together to Washington, in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Jay Ratliff)

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