By: Brianne Merchant
In 2012, Ryan Paton received a call from his brother telling him to look into an organization called Honor Flight, a volunteer program dedicated to flying World War II veterans to be honored at their memorial in Washington D.C.. The phone call ended up changing his life.
At the time, the closest Honor Flight hubs were located in Tampa and Martin County. He reached out to them asking how he could help, and the next day received a call back from Todd Tucker, president of the Martin County hub offering him the chance to volunteer.
Paton’s contributions began by paying his own fare on a veteran flight. The experience ended up affecting him so much that a few weeks later he held a happy hour fundraiser to raise money for their efforts raising $3,000 in two hours.
With the guidance of the Martin County Hub, Paton and several other volunteers created Honor Flight South Florida. Their first flight included 16 veterans on a commercial airline. Fast forward five years and they now have expanded to chartering full planes of 75 veterans four times a year. Within the last six years, they have flown over 1,000 World War II veterans free of charge.
In addition to owning a residential mortgage company in Coral Springs, Paton is now the co-founder and director of operations for Honor Flight South Florida. He has been given the opportunity to meet and get to know every single one of the veterans Honor Flight South Florida has worked with. He spends time with them by having a few drinks from the countries they served in while listening to their stories.
“I have become very close to a lot of them, ten in particular,” said Paton. “They have become family. Of the ten, three have since passed. I have spoken at each funeral and their families thank me all the time for being their voice.”
Inspired by his time with the veterans, Paton came up with the idea for a Cocktails with Heroes event “to give people the gift of hanging out with these world heroes, as well as raise money for Honor Flight South Florida.” So far these events have raised over $58,000 with 100 percent of the proceeds going towards honoring more of the local World War II heroes.
“I take this very seriously, as I want to honor my friends and their legacy as highly as possible,” said Paton. “These are the final voices of the greatest generation. All of the previous and future generations can learn so much from these guys and gals.”
Cocktails with Heroes will be the sixth live event hosted by Honor Flight South Florida. Held at The Parkland Golf and Country Club sports club ballroom on Thursday, June 14, from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., it will include a wine and beer tasting from the five countries that each veteran liberated during World War II along with hors d’oeuvres.
The Parkland Golf and Country Club is located at 10001 Old Club Road, Parkland, FL, 33076.
Brianne Merchant is a junior studying journalism at Florida Gulf Coast University. She started journalism her freshman year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and has been writing ever since. She also works as a Peer Educator and Resident Assistant in college.